As many of those attending the inaugural London Historians bash will have seen, the BT Tower was the focus of a brief but impressive firework display early on Tuesday night, marking the start of the 500-day countdown to the opening of next year’s London Olympics. The organisers constructed a special platform for press photographers at the corner of Cleveland Street and Howland Street, probably expecting their images to go around the world, but unfortunately the stalled countdown clock in Trafalgar Square proved a more appealing subject to most picture editors.
Close inspection of the BT Tower reveals that it’s in need of a bit of a spruce-up, but from a distance – especially at night – it remains one of the most striking sights on the London skyline, 50 years after the Ministry of Public Building and Works began to erect it for the General Post Office. Nowadays, landmark buildings are invariably designed by glamorous architects with international reputations. The fast-rising Shard is the creation of Renzo Piano; Olympia and York employed Cesar Pelli to build One Canada Square at Canary Wharf; Swiss Re commissioned Britain’s own Norman Foster to grow the Gherkin. Back in the late ’50s the Ministry of PB&W simply gave the job to its team of in-house architects, led by Eric Bedford.
The GPO Tower (as it was at first called, and informally the Post Office Tower) originally had two particular claims to fame: it was the UK’s tallest building from its topping out in 1964 until the arrival of the NatWest Tower in 1980, and it boasted a 34th-floor restaurant that revolved once every 22 minutes, on nylon wheels, allowing diners to see every corner of London at least once during their meal. In 1971 an IRA bomb exploded in the men’s lavatory at the restaurant and this event is commonly associated with the long-standing denial of public access to the building. In fact, the great unwashed continued to be admitted to the tower’s top floor for a decade after the bombing, but since 1981 (when the building became the British Telecom Tower) access has been restricted to authorised staff and invited guests.
Given that members of the public can freely enter parts of the Houses of Parliament and tour one corner of Buckingham Palace on payment of an admission fee, it’s surprising that the BT Tower remains off limits. Every so often the idea of reopening the restaurant to the public is mooted, but each time the plans never get off the drawing board. Last September a lucky few (one in 70 of those who applied) were granted the privilege of a guided tour on Open House weekend. At the very least, this tour should become a regular fixture in the calendar but really BT ought to be able to do better than that.