A revolving restaurant and communications hub: History of the BT Tower in Fitzrovia

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Lofty: The BT Tower in Fitzrovia stands tall at 581ft, with the aerials bringing it to 620ft

It’s a dominant symbol on the London skyline, yet many city dwellers don’t quite have the same affection for the BT Tower as other lofty landmarks. Maybe this is because most of us haven’t had the opportunity to have a shared history with the building because it’s been closed to the public for over three decades. Many visitors to the capital may be surprised to know the building has been hovering over the streets of Fitzrovia since the 1960s and is a Grade II-listed monument.

Originally commissioned by the GPO (General Post Office) and designed by Eric Bedford and GR Yeats, the tower’s main function was to carry telecommunication signals from London to across the country. Although construction began before the Millbank Tower (387ft), the latter was erected quicker and was briefly the tallest building in London until the BT Tower was completed in 1964. At 581ft high, it reigned supreme as the tallest in London until Tower 42 was built in the City of London in 1980. Opened by the then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson in October 1965, the £2.5million BT Tower included 37 floors and two elevators. Seven months after the official opening, the building was open to the public with quite a variety of amusements to keep them occupied in May 1966.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Dwarfing the great dome: The BT Tower stands over 200 feet higher than London’s previous tallest building St Paul’s Cathedral (as seen from The Monument)

One such attraction was the Top of the Tower revolving restaurant. When I was a child growing up in London in the Eighties, I remember my parents talking about the restaurant on the 34th floor, which was sadly closed in 1980 due to terrorism fears. In 1971, an IRA bomb exploded in the men’s toilets at the restaurant. I remember for years not realising it had actually closed and in my young girl’s mind, fantasising about hanging on to my table for dear life as the restaurant whizzed around at speed. Actually it was one gentle revolution every 22 minutes. Also towards the top of the building were public viewing galleries and a gift shop. However, a year after Top of the Tower closed, public access was also halted.

Of course, while telecommunications have changed drastically over the past 30 years, the BT Tower is still used by TV and satellite companies, as well as to monitor air quality. Since 2009, a 360 degree LED display has been wrapped around the Tower at the 36th and 37th floors projecting messages and the BT logo.

Although we are spoiled for choice when it comes to seeing London from a height – most recently with The Shard and The Orbit at the Olympic Park, I believe there would be demand and many willing, paying customers who would love the chance to eat in the BT Tower’s revolving restaurant again. While this appears unlikely to happen at the moment, who knows what the future will hold…

For Metro Girl’s other blog posts on London’s tallest buildings, read about Tower 42 in the City of London Vertigo 42 Champagne Bar review: Hope you’ve got a head for heights… and bubbles, the Lloyd’s Building Inside out: A rare chance to step inside the Lloyd’s Building at Open House, the inauguration of The Shard The Shard laser light show – gallery or Galvin @ Windows at the Hilton Galvin at Windows cocktail bar: Take a ‘French Lover’ on the 28th floor.

For more of Metro Girl’s history blog posts, click here.

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About LondonMetroGirl

Media professional who was born, brought up and now works in London. My blog is a guide to London - what's on, festivals, history, restaurant reviews and attractions, as well as the odd travel piece. All images on my blog are © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl, unless otherwise specified. Do not use without seeking permission first.

Posted on 18 March 2013, in Architecture, History, London and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Aah, those were the days. My mum was taken to the restaurant for a meal by a colleague at the end of the 60s as a work “thank you” and despite being a teenager I was happy to abandon any principles about not being out with ones mum so as to get in on the trip. In 1977 I took my girlfriend there for a meal by which time it had settled into a comfortable 70s groove with the menu IIRC including pate, melon, and prawn cocktail, mains including steak, wiener schnitzel, and dover sole of course, and the inevitable black forest gateaux made an appearance too. As I recall the viewing galleries had already closed to general public access some time after the bomb, but the restaurant remained in business for many years after. When the restaurant shut, whilst it had been stated that security had been the reason for the viewing galleries closing, security wasn’t given as reason for the restaurant closing – they had after all continued trading after the bomb, but Butlin’s lease (they ran it) expired in 1980, and they didn’t want to renew. Also any new restaurant operator – it was said – would have to bear the costs of renewing the restaurant’s bearings which supposedly put some off.

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