(CNN) — Somewhere beneath the grounds of England’s National Stadium at Wembley, London, lie the foundations of what could have been the tallest building in the city. Modeled after the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Great Tower of London was poised to surpass it in height and reach nearly 1,200 feet.
Instead, it never got past the first stage of construction, known as the “London Stump”. It was demolished nearly 120 years ago, leaving behind an unfulfilled dream and large concrete foundations that were rediscovered in 2002 when the current stadium was built to replace an old one.
So what was wrong?
The tower was designed by Edward Watkin, a British politician and railway magnate whose previous efforts included an unsuccessful attempt to build a Channel Tunnel, more than 100 years before construction of the current Eurotunnel began.
“Bigger is better”
One of the tower models that was not chosen.
The public domain review
“Watkin was a born entrepreneur and he loved big ideas – the bigger the better,” says Christopher Costelloe, an expert in Victorian architecture and an inspector of historic buildings at the public heritage organization Historic England. “I think he tended to get so excited about his ideas that he often went ahead before he thought how practical or financially viable they were.”
The Eiffel Tower, which opened in 1889, quickly became a popular tourist attraction and its construction costs were paid off within months.
At the same time, Watkin was looking for ways to attract more passengers to his Metropolitan Railway – later to become the Metropolitan Line of the London Underground.
The railway passed through Wembley, then a rural hamlet northwest of central London, where Watkin had bought land to create an amusement park: “It was supposed to be the Disneyland of its day, or the successor early 19th century amusement parks like Battersea Park in London or Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen,” says Costelloe.
What better than a taller tower than the Eiffel Tower to convince Londoners to get on a train to get there?
Watkin had the audacity to ask Gustave Eiffel himself to design it, but the French engineer refused for patriotic reasons. His plan B was an international design competition, with a top prize of 500 guineas, or about $80,000 in today’s money.
He received 68 submissions, not all of them realistic.
One was 2,000 feet tall and was supposed to have a train running halfway to the top, on a spiral train track. Another was designed as an “air colony” with celestial gardens, museums and galleries, as well as a reproduction of the Great Pyramid at the top.
Most, however, matched the aesthetics of the Eiffel, and it was one that Watkin selected as the winner, submitted by London architects Stewart, McLaren and Dunn.
“The winning proposal was a more slender version of the Eiffel Tower. Very similar in general profile, but the structure was somewhat thinner,” says Costelloe. At 1,200 feet, it was also about 175 feet taller than its Parisian counterpart, which was the tallest building in the world at the time.
A not so popular attraction
The first and only completed stage of the tower.
All entries were collected in a catalogue, published in 1890, which described the project in detail and revealed that the London tower would be “much more spacious” than the Eiffel and would include “restaurants, theatres, shops, baths walks, winter gardens and a variety of other amusements”, all accessible via a recent invention, the electric lift. A viewing platform would provide panoramic views and astronomical observations, facilitated by the “air purity” found at such a “tremendous height”.
After the initial fanfare, however, the proposed design was scaled down to make it cheaper to build, and the legs were reduced from eight to four, the same number as the Eiffel.
Construction began in 1892, and the first stage – about 150 feet high – was completed three years later.
Wembley Park had opened the previous year to moderate success, but the tower still had a long way to go – and there was something wrong.
“When they reached the first stage, it quickly became clear that the building was sagging. Not so bad that they couldn’t use it, but they certainly realized they would be in big trouble if they continued. to build it higher, increasing the pressure on the legs,” says Costelloe.
Although it was opened to the public and elevators were installed, the tower was condemned.
“One of the main issues was that Watkin died in 1901,” Costelloe adds. “He had been the driving force behind the project and with his death there was only a rational calculation of costs and benefits left. People could climb to the first stage, but it was not high enough to get the kind of panoramic views you’d get from the top of the Eiffel Tower, and the surrounding area wasn’t particularly developed or spectacular.
“There just weren’t enough visitors to pay for the finish.”
The tallest in town
Once Watkin died, the impetus for building the tower was lost.
Herbert Barraud/Hulton Archives/Getty Images
A year after Watkin’s death, the tower was declared unsafe and closed. Shortly after, it was demolished with dynamite. The surrounding Wembley area, however, continued to thrive as an industrial and residential suburb of London.
In 1923 a stadium, which would later be known as the original Wembley Stadium, was erected on the former site of the tower. Its demolition to make way for the current Wembley Stadium eventually exposed the foundations of the tower, when work to lower the level of the new ground was undertaken. It was a belated reminder of the failing tower, also referenced by a neighborhood pub called “Watkin’s Folly” (it closed permanently in 2019).
Remarkably, the Watkin Tower would still be the tallest building in London today, towering over The Shard skyscraper by almost 160 feet. But would it be an iconic monument like the Eiffel Tower? Probably not, says Costelloe: “It would still have been a very tall structure on the skyline, but visible only in certain views,” he says.
“Not being in central London, it would never have had the kind of dominant orientation that the Eiffel Tower has in Paris.”