Fifty Years Of The BT Tower

By James FitzGerald Last edited 48 months ago
Fifty Years Of The BT Tower

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The BT Tower isn’t what you’d think of as a regular, full-bodied skyscraper. But try telling that to the many denizens of low-rise 1960s Fitzrovia who witnessed with horror the erection of that incongruous, gargantuan structure at 60 Cleveland Street.

When completed in 1964, the Post Office Tower — as it was first known — rose 177 metres (191 metres with rooftop mast), trumping St Paul’s Cathedral, and the recently completed Vickers Tower (now Millbank Tower), to become the tallest building in Britain*, never mind the capital city. Why did it take so long to eclipse old Wren? Look no further than the 1894 London Building Act which capped building height at 80 feet.

Visually and functionally, the Tower remains as obvious a relic of the Cold War as you’ll see this side of East Berlin. Designed to withstand any nearby nuclear blast and with a war room in the basement, the Tower was the fortified hub of a new microwave telecommunications network serving chiefly commercial but also defence needs. Prime Minister Harold Wilson inaugurated it by making a call to Birmingham.

London’s worst-kept secret

Looming above gentile Georgian terraces below, this totem of military resilience was naturally an alienating, foreboding thing at first. Even Doctor Who got creeped out by it, while The Goodies imagined it being pulled down by a big cat, quite popularly.

Heightening the enigma was the Tower’s entry onto the Official Secrets List. Sketching or photographing the building was technically forbidden by a law which seemed to be immediately flouted by the Post Office itself, who issued a set of stamps depicting the Tower. Clement Freud MP highlighted the ludicrous situation in parliament by suggesting the phonebook should be withdrawn for listing the Tower.

A myth continues to persist that this ‘secret’ structure was also deliberately missed off Ordnance Survey maps until the ‘90s. Sadly for conspiracy theorists, that claim can be debunked by a quick whizz through the archives. In any case, the government had done little to make this titan seem anything but an imposing, unfriendly thing.

View from the top.

Futuristic thrills, courtesy of Butlins

Except, that is, for installing a rotating restaurant at the top, inaugurated by then-Postmaster General Tony Benn. The claustrophobic eatery was operated by Butlins and had celebs and punters queuing round the West End. As well as dishing up prawn cocktail in a nuke-proof setting, the attraction offered stupendous 15-mile vistas of London’s modest, church spire-pricked skyline across to the Home Counties.

Beneath was a viewing gallery, accessible by super-fast lifts travelling at six metres a second. The £3 admission (in today’s money) was felt by some to be prohibitive – how times change.

The fun lasted only a few years. After hoax upon hoax, all the Tower’s fears about bombs were finally realised. The restaurant was empty when a device hidden in a toilet exploded on Halloween 1971, but shrapnel and debris were blasted hundreds of yards. The IRA claimed responsibility, but the Angry Brigade also said it was their protest at Britain joining the EU.

No lives were lost, but an official admitted that security was impossible to guarantee across 35 floors. And that was that. The restaurant was closed in 1980, the year the Tower was superseded in height by a building we now call Tower 42. Twelve months later and all public access was shut off, the Tower quietly resumed its day job as the lynch-pin of Britain’s terrestrial TV transmission.

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Enigma restored

Rather than entering a decline, the Tower has since experienced yet more public fascination by virtue of its sheer unattainability. A few years ago, rumours that the restaurant would re-open in time for the Olympics were reported as fact, with Gary Rhodes said to be the brains behind it all.  The idea was quietly shelved. The Tower did recently undergo one major alteration, however, when its defunct antennae were removed, exposing the central core.

The only access to the viewing platforms since 1981 has been for invitees of BT’s corporate parties, participants of occasional charity staircase runs, or Noel Edmonds during Christmas broadcasts. In 2010, 35,000 people registered for 500 spots on the Open House event, which indicates people’s enduring curiosity with London’s first skyscraper. Maybe you’re one of the lucky few to make a one-off ascent next month — or hoping to make the reserve list.

In 2003, the Tower was Grade II listed by English Heritage and also voted the capital’s ugliest building after the Barbican. Divisive as ever, then, and pleasantly ironic for a building which, at 50, is still excelling at its straightforward original role: connecting people with one another.

*Note for pedants: various communications masts were taller than the Post Office Tower, including the Crystal Palace mast that survives to this day. But the Fitzrovia tower was the tallest structure with habitable floors at the top in 1964. Please feel free to quibble definitions in the comments below. Images by M@.

Last Updated 09 September 2014