During the UK’s Great Storm of 1987, a 120 mile per hour hurricane caused more than £6 billion-worth of damage to buildings across the south-east of England. London took the brunt of the destruction yet, remarkably, the London Olympia exhibition center only suffered a loosened ventilation hatch, such was the quality of its Victorian engineering.
Fast-forward and the 131-year-old structure hit the headlines recently when it was acquired for £296 million by a consortium of institutional investors led by Deutsche Finance International, the Munich-based investment firm, and including Bayerische Versorgungskammer, Germany’s largest public pension fund, and Versicherungskammer Bayern Group, Germany’s largest public insurer.
The asset’s “iconic status, its prime location and quality management team” were all major factors in attracting the consortium, which says it is planning to redevelop London Olympia’s hospitality, leisure and residential development offerings, though precise plans have yet to be disclosed. The DFI-led consortium rubberstamped the deal in April, but the venue was almost snapped up by a US buyer; the Madison Square Garden Company, owner of the eponymous New York venue, was reportedly the early favorite to acquire the asset with the intention of turning it into a sports and entertainment arena to rival London’s O2 and Wembley Arena.
London Olympia, which attracts more than 1.6 million visitors and hosts over 200 events each year, was built in 1886 near Earl’s Court, in west London. It comprises seven separate sections, the largest of which has a capacity of 10,000, and offers more than 775,000 square feet of space, including around 175,000 square feet of undeveloped freehold land.
Since its construction the venue has hosted a wide variety of culturally significant events and played a part in two world wars. After hosting a succession of events like international motor and horse shows, world heavyweight boxing bouts and even Phineas T Barnum’s circus, London Olympia was requisitioned by the government during the First World War as a temporary prison camp for German nationals and prisoners of war.
Zeppelin airships began bombing London in the early war years and London Olympia’s owner at the time, Sir Gilbert Greenall, an early opportunistic real estate investor, took advantage of tumbling property prices, buying up land around the venue and gaining lucrative rental incomes.
During the inter-war years, London Olympia resumed its role as the venue of choice for major events before being bought, months before the onset of the Great Depression in February 1929, for £1 million (around £13 million today) by British financier Philip Hill.
As war broke out again the venue was requisitioned as a civilian internment camp and used by Charles de Gaulle as an assembly point for the French army. By 1944 it was a transport depot and logistics center for the British Army, a role which led to it being bombed six times.
The building’s survival from so many bombings, and the subsequent hurricane in 1987, has been largely attributed to the skill of the engineers who designed and built it. Remarkably, the original 1,000-tonne roof, erected in 12 weeks in the winter of 1885, has survived intact and the original glass used throughout the building was only replaced in 1991.
One event, however, that literally rocked its foundations was a legendary concert in 1967 featuring The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Pink Floyd and The Who, which reportedly registered on the Richter Scale.
It might be difficult to match the venue’s colorful history over the coming decades, but with new institutional owners and plans in place, a new chapter has begun for one of London’s most enduring properties.