Its restaurant may have long since stopped turning, but this towering symbol of 1960s technology has proved surprisingly resilient
For a building that was once the tallest, and is still one of the most recognisable, in London, the tower at 60 Cleveland Street, where Euston starts to turn into the West End, is an ambiguous landmark. It has had so many changes of name – the Post Office Tower, the Telecom Tower, the BT Tower – that what you call it indicates how long your London memory is. It once stood for Britain’s faith in a technological future; it now seems to stand for a past that didn’t live up to its promises. And everyone knows that this symbol of the white heat of the technological revolution had a revolving restaurant on the 34th floor.
It was Harold Wilson who opened the tower – with a phone call to the Lord Mayor of Birmingham – on 8 October 1965. But it’s the opening of the Top of the Tower restaurant on 19 May 1966 – with Anthony Wedgwood Benn as Postmaster General, and Billy Butlin cutting the ribbons – that has lingered in the collective imagination.
Of all the buildings in London currently boasting a 360-degree view, the Post Office Tower is the only one whose height was necessary to its original purpose. The General Post Office, which was until 1969 a government department responsible for both the postal and telephone services, began to construct the tower in 1961. Like all radio masts, it had to be tall – 189m, including 12m of aerials at the top – because the microwave dishes it was designed to carry needed clear lines of sight to towers outside the city. It sways up to eight inches each way in high winds – and is unusually rigid for a building of its height, thanks to its central concrete core.
In 1980, the Top of the Tower shut its doors, and a year later the tower closed to the public altogether. During the same period, British Telecom was formed and split off from the Post Office as a still-public corporation. The London Telecom Tower, as it was renamed, hadn’t been up to date for some time, but still managed to survive many of its would-be successors. In 1984, for example, British Telecom opened Mondial House, next to Cannon Street Station.
This 12-storey riverside ziggurat, built on a scale to accommodate the massive computer equipment of the time, was unloved by Prince Charles (“redolent of a word processor”, he decreed), and was demolished in 2006, three years after the Post Office Tower was listed by English Heritage.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the tower today is that it isn’t obsolete at all. The building may be closed to the public but it hosts over 500 events a year. And it may not be a radio tower any more – the long-defunct microwave dishes were removed in 2011 – but most of the 300 people who work there are still involved in broadcasting.
The tower is now the centre of BT’s broadband switching services – it is estimated that 90 per cent of broadcast television in the UK passes through the building in some form. The International Media Centre – the control room on the second floor of the tower’s base where this all happens – is still a vast space filled with screens broadcasting from all over the world.
Safety regulations mean that no more than 100 people can be above ground level (during the tower’s heyday, the restaurant, cocktail bar and viewing galleries were often full of 300 people at a time). A revolution of the 34th floor still takes 22 minutes – but it’s no longer a public space. However, the tower has more than fulfilled the prediction of a Conservative Postmaster General in 1960 that it would be “an addition to the skyline which would characterise the technological age of which London is the centre”.
Image: Mary Evans Picture Library / Gerald Wilson