Standing grandly on the bank of the Thames, the Houses of Parliament trumpet the self-confidence of Victorian England in an era when the sun never set on the British Empire.
Officially called the Palace of Westminster, the neo-Gothic building -- whose classical symmetry contrasts with its exuberant spires and towers -- takes on a storybook glow at night, when it is flooded with gold and green light.
Filling eight acres, the Houses of Parliament reflect
the opposing but compatible styles of the designers
who worked on the structure.
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The building rose on the foundations of a royal palace that burned almost completely in 1834. The surviving Westminster Hall dates to the 11th century, and its grand oak hammerbeam roof once sheltered the law court where Thomas More was tried.
The present structure by Victorian architect Charles Barry and designer Augustus Pugin, completed in 1870, has nearly 1,200 rooms, more than two miles of corridors, and 100 staircases.
Its most famous feature is the clock tower, which houses a 13-ton bell called Big Ben. The clock itself, with a face 23 feet across, is visible from a good distance and keeps remarkably accurate time.
It has faltered only rarely, such as when World War II bombs shattered the clock face, and in 1949 when a flock of starlings roosted on the hands, arresting their movement.
The Houses of Parliament are, of course, the home of British government. The House of Commons occupied St. Stephen's Chapel from 1547 until the chapel was destroyed by fire in 1843. To commemorate its original home, the current House of Commons is designed so the canopied Speaker's chair looks like an altar and the benches like choir stalls.
Despite the ecclesiastical ambiance of the room, debates among Members of Parliament are famous for their thoroughly secular, sharp rhetoric and passionate argumentation.
More elegantly appointed in scarlet and gold, the House of Lords has now ejected nearly all of its hereditary members. New processes for gaining membership in the House of Lords are being developed. But not even such changes as these can take away the traditional grandeur of the Houses of Parliament.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jerry Camarillo Dunn Jr., has worked with the National Geographic Society for more than 20 years, starting as a staff editor, writer, and columnist at Traveler magazine, then writing travel guides. His latest work is National Geographic Traveler: San Francisco. Dunn’s Smithsonian Guide to Historic America: The Rocky Mountain States has sold more than 100,000 copies. His travel pieces appear in newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune and The Boston Globe. Jerry Dunn's stories have won three Lowell Thomas Awards from the Society of American Travel Writers -- the highest honor in the field. He also wrote and hosted a pilot episode for a travel show produced by WGBH, Boston's public television station.