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21 Designs for The Great Tower of London That Never Was

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"Taking into consideration the enormous popularity of the Eiffel Tower and the consequent pecuniary benefits conferred on those interested in that undertaking, it is not too much to anticipate that, in the course of a short time, every important country will possess its tall Tower." So said a pamphlet released in 1890 entitled Descriptive Illustrated Catalogue of the Sixty-Eight Competitive Designs for the Great Tower for London.

Unfortunately, Fred C. Lynde, writing on behalf of the Tower Company, Ltd., was wrong about the Eiffel Tower's influence on international architecture, and London's own never came to be. But let's back up.

After the Eiffel Tower debuted as the entrance to the 1889 Paris World's Fair and the then-tallest man-made structure in the world, Sir Edward Watkin, a member of the British Parliament and newspaper and railway entrepreneur, supposedly vowed that "anything Paris can do, we can do bigger." His patriotism was probably well received, but it wasn't the only motivation for his founding of the Tower Company, Ltd. Watkin was also the chairman of London's Metropolitan Railway, which was being extended around that time out into the surrounding countryside. Eager to incentivize Londoners to patronize his railway, Watkin planned to open a park, resplendent with amenities, near a proposed station at Wembley. The Tower was to be the centerpiece of this park.

When a request to Gustave Eiffel himself was denied, Watkin's Tower Company launched a design competition in November 1889 to solicit proposals for the Tower. Sixty-eight plans were submitted from architects all over the world—and although a winner was chosen, the project was never completed. Construction began in 1892 but stalled four years later with just the first of four levels complete. The ground they had chosen to build on turned out to be marshy, and with the crowds not flocking to the park as Watkin anticipated, funds ran dry.

In 1899, the Tower Company was liquidated, although their unfinished project—known as "Watkin's Folly" or "The London Stump"—remained until it was demolished in 1904.

London never got her Great Tower, but the catalog presents an imaginative and sometimes fanciful array of what could have been.

1.

This design by Stewart, MacLaren and Dunn ended up being chosen as the plan for the ill-fated Tower. The architects were awarded 500 guineas—a short-lived British coin equal to 20 shillings—for their effort. The proposal included plans for a 90-room hotel housed inside the 1200 foot structure.

2.

The second place prize of 250 guineas was awarded to this design from Webster and Haigh for a 1300-foot Tower that the architects imagined would be heavily occupied. The buildings on the first level were "adapted for Hotels, Restaurants, Residential Flats, Offices, Warehouses, Stores, etc., Concerts and other entertainments." There was also to be a balcony level that could comfortably seat 3000 people.

3.

This proposal, from an American architect, would have included a scientific observatory as well as recreational space.

4.

A Canadian architect proposed this design, which resembles a modern skyscraper, and boasted, "capability of being taken down in sections—each section being useful for other purposes."

5.

S. Fisher was perhaps overly ambitious when he drew up plans for a 2000 foot "Monument of Hieroglyphics emblimatical of British History during Queen Victoria's Reign" (whatever that means). In addition to the staggering height—more than double the size of the Eiffel Tower—this design was probably nixed for the ahead-of-its-time locomotive engine that Fisher imagined would carry visitors upwards on a spiraling track.

6.

No futuristic contraptions or sky-high heights in this American-made design. But the "modern Indian Oriental style" is beautiful in the depiction.

7.

E. Worral and Co. deviated from the conical majority for a lean tower with a glass-roofed restaurant on the top level.

8.

Thomas V. Trew's design was full of symbolic value, meant to resemble the "Crown," with the "Colonies and British possessions for the base."

9.

J. Horton's giant screw certainly stands out—although the addition of spiral tramcars makes it seem more like a proto-roller coaster than a national monument.

10.

J. W. Couchman's proposal came without much exposition, but the unusual shape was given a name: "The Century Tower."

11.

This hexagonal submission was to be covered in glass so as to resemble a "Crystal Tower."

12.

For some reason, the architect from Constantinople named his tent-like tower after a poisonous tree found primarily in Africa.

13.

A. F. Hill's super-sized submission was designed to resemble the "Monoliths of Ancient Egypt" and was supposed to house everything from international courts, flower and fruit shows, hotels, and mansions to an observatory 1960 feet up in the air.

14.

The series of domes that form the exterior of this Tower are unique in form but the proposed specially "trained mules to carry people up the spiral incline" are perhaps the most distinguishing aspect of the design.

15.

Economy was surely a factor in Watkin's consideration of the different design proposals, but this barely-there tower—anchored by wire ropes to save on material costs—was probably not what he had in mind.

16.

Robery Wylie's design riffs off the Eiffel Tower as well. But it does so with stunning, intricate detail.

17.

The design from Max am Ende stands out from the rest with a classic Gothic style of architecture.

18.

The base of webbed design from Henry Davey was proposed as an indoor Winter Garden.

19.

The interior of the giant terrestrial globe atop this design would itself house a number of floors of recreational activities.

20.

The odd shape of Edwin Roundtour's design was intended to mimic that of a tree, and thereby cut down on the wind resistance, which posed a threat to the teeteringly tall Tower Watkin hoped to achieve.

21.

An Eiffel Tower knock-off ominously named "I See All."

All photos courtesy of Archive.org.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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