The Eiffel Tower had a father

The Eiffel Tower had a father


“I ought to be jealous of the tower. She is more famous than I am.”
Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923)

 

Monsieur Eiffel was right of course. He was one of France’s greatest inventors, an architect, a structural engineer, a successful entrepreneur. He was a man whose innovative, elegant iron structures and buildings have defied the test of time, not just in France, but in many other countries as well. He was a patriot who prided himself on giving his country a symbol of Paris and French culture, and one of the most instantly recognizable landmarks in the world.  Still, Monsieur Eiffel would forever live in the shadow of his eponymous masterpiece.

Eiffel, left, on the Tower (1889)

It seems that from the start, the Eiffel Tower – very much like the French – possessed a unique quality: It fascinated, yet annoyed other countries. Labeled “a lighthouse, a nail, a chandelier” by international critics before its completion; railed as an eyesore and a monstrosity for two years as it slowly stood up against the Parisian skies (1887-1889,) the Eiffel Tower still gets pulverized on a regular basis in popular action movies (Independence Day, Mars Attacks, Armageddon.) 

An eyesore in the making? (1887-1889)
Hollywood: 1 – Eiffel Tower: 0 
(G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, 2009)

But life is not a movie, and the Eiffel Tower endures. 200 million visitors (who have seen it up close and personal over the last 127 years) would probably agree ’tis, indeed, a good thing.

What is so special about la Tour Eiffel? It can be argued that the prominent landmark benefited from a “concours de circonstances,” (a combination of factors.) Gustave Eiffel and his contemporaries lived under the 3rd French Republic (1870-1940,) a democratic period in French history following years of political instability. Significant social reforms were introduced at the time. The world was ready for change. The second industrial revolution had started in the 1850s. As technological and economic progress spread, there was endless fascination with science and technology. People started traveling more often, and ventured farther away. There was a growing need for more efficient transportation means, new building materials, better infrastructure. As railways expanded throughout Europe, so did the number of train stations, public buildings and bridges. 

Bridges offered Gustave Eiffel his breakthrough. During his long career, they would provide a testing ground for his inventions, as well as a steady money supply to finance more ambitious projects. He became known as a talented, reliable engineer, who completed projects on schedule. Eiffel helped pioneer the use of iron that gradually replaced stone as a building material. Some of his early innovations included a method that created sturdy but lightweight trusses and arches, with a web-like appearance. The resilient wrought-iron structure would withstand elements, including strong winds. 

Eiffel’s “Viaduc du Gabarit,” a railway bridge,
Ardèche region (1884-1885)
“Pont du Vecchio,” railway bridge
 Corsica (1890-1894)

Later on, Eiffel’s prefabricated, portable bridges would gain worldwide recognition: Parts were mass-produced in his workshops and later assembled on site with rivets. They did not require skilled labor at that stage. Economical, they were often used by the military. Eiffel actually had invented the ancestor of Meccano model construction kits.

Eiffel’s consulting and construction firm would get involved in diverse projects, in France and abroad. In Paris, he worked on the original department store, le Bon Marché; built the famous Paradis Latin cabaret; did some iron framing on Notre-Dame cathedral. In Nice, he built the amazing dome of the Negresco hotel, and the Nice Observatory. There were ambitious projects in other countries as well, where Eiffel erected buildings like the central railway stations in Santiago de Chile and Budapest.

Negresco Hotel, Nice
Eiffel’s pink dome (1912)
Nice Observatory dome (1880s)
Greenhouse, Château de Laurenzane, Gradignan (Gironde)
Budapest, Hungary
Railway station (1877)

It is doubtful America would have ever been able to enjoy one its most iconic possessions, the Statue of Liberty, if Eiffel had not helped the architect, Auguste Bartholdi. Eiffel solved complex structural issues and created an iron frame for the statue. Just like one of his prefabricated bridges, the Statue was built in France, then disassembled, shipped to America, where it was re-built in New York City. But that, my friends, is another story.

Miss Liberty’s hand…

Back in the 1880s, France and the world were ready for the Eiffel Tower.

La Dame de Fer” (The Iron Lady) only needed a reason to show up, the much-anticipated 1889 World Fair. 

Buy your train ticket and visit the World Fair! 25 % off!

Now is a good time to recommend an excellent book, Eiffel’s Tower, by Jill Jonnes. Her story is a fast-paced, detailed account of Belle Epoque Paris and of Eiffel’s struggles as he was attempting to build his masterpiece. The backdrop of the tale is the 1889 World Fair, and the colorful personalities who came to the French capital and captivated the public. Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, and the legendary Wild West Show. Thomas Edison and his phonograph. Gauguin. Rosa Bonheur. Vincent Van Gogh. European royalty. What a circus that was, and everyone wanted to be there. 

Buffalo Bill: Twice a day, rain or shine!

The Fair (May-October 1889) celebrated the centennial of the French Revolution and the birth of the Republic. It was a huge hit and welcomed 32 million visitors. The Eiffel Tower was built as the entrance arch to the grounds. Most of the attractions were located on the famed Champs de Mars, behind it. 

The Eiffel Tower, 1889 World Fair

Jill Jonnes’ book highlights Gustave Eiffel’s tour de force. He accomplished a real feat: Not only did he have to compete with other consulting firms to sell his ambitious project to the city of Paris; he also had to deal with French bureaucracy, political shenanigans, and intense criticism from the international press. To be fair, Parisians were not enthused with his project either. When Eiffel finally won the contract and started construction – financed in part with his own money – there were about two years left before the opening of the World Fair. 

He forged ahead, with a crew of 50 engineers and about 300 workers, overcoming structural challenges, extreme weather, strikes, petitions, and was very close to completing his project on schedule. On May 4, 1889, its elevators newly installed, and boasting its first fresh coat of paint, the Eiffel Tower, looming over Paris at 1,063 feet, greeted its first visitors. Three months later, when the show was over, 2 million people had climbed the Tower. This was Eiffel’s finest hour. Souvenirs featuring the “Iron Lady” became a hot ticket in town, a trend still going strong today.

(Photos by American Frog Photography)

Gustave Eiffel could have retired then, but didn’t. There were other projects in his order book, the central Metropolitan line in Paris, an underwater bridge across the English Channel, an observatory on top of Mount Blanc. He would not complete them. 

Unfortunately, he was embroiled in legal issues following his involvement in the Panama Canal project and the bankruptcy and scandal that followed. Eiffel spent part of his considerable personal fortune to clear his name (he had been hired to build locks for the canal and was not involved in financial matters.) 

Eiffel had an agreement with the city of Paris: The Eiffel Tower was to be dismantled after 20 years. He knew he would convince his countrymen to keep the Tower if he could find practical uses for it. Eiffel focused on research in the fields of meteorology, telecommunications and aerodynamics. He moved into the Tower when he lived and worked most of the time. Eventually, the iconic landmark became a permanent radio tower and was used later on for TV broadcasting. 

Eiffel had saved his greatest creation but would forever live in its shadow. Everyone knows the Eiffel Tower. How many people are aware of its creator’s genius and many accomplishments?  

Monsieur Eiffel worked as a researcher until he died, at the ripe age of 88.

The Eiffel Tower bears Eiffel’s stamp: elegance, strength, thrift. A universal landmark, it represents Paris for some, and France for others. It fascinates and dazzles, especially at night, when it sparkles over the city. 

(American Frog Photography)

A former Paris resident and a frequent visitor, I never get tired of looking at la Tour Eiffel. Do you?

I love to stand underneath the giant structure and look up; a bold move, and I hope “The Old Lady” does not object. 

(American Frog Photography)

If only she could talk… What does she think of the commotion at her feet, every day, every night? She has seen so much. In all likelihood, the Eiffel Tower looks down at us and smiles.

La fourmilière… Ant world…
Hugh rules (but the Eiffel Tower is taller!) 
French sheep farmers’ demonstration…
Hitler posed in front of the Eiffel Tower during WWII but never made it to the top:  Overzealous French city workers cut the elevator cables a few hours before German troops marched into Paris.
Adolf did not feel like walking up the 600 stairs to the 2nd floor,
but Junior and I have done it many times!
Summer 1944: Paris is liberated, and American G.I.s turn into tourists 

 

A bientôt.

Afterword: 

The Eiffel Tower had fierce enemies. Some never relented, even after the World Fair. 

When asked why he ate his main meal at the restaurant located on the first floor of the Eiffel Tower several times a week, French writer Guy de Maupassant replied:  “It’s the only place in Paris where I can eat and not see that hideous tower” 

 
 
 
 
 
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25 Responses to The Eiffel Tower had a father

  1. I always learn something new when I visit your blog. =) I never get tired of the Eiffel Tower either. Great photos. I can’t believe Hilter in front of the tower – who does he think he is? Good job on the hike up!

  2. I always find it interesting how much time can change public opinion. How the tower can go from being an eyesore to one of the most beloved (by most people, at least) French icons is a point of great discussion and interest for me.

    Thanks also for the book recommendation. I adore La Belle Epoque, so much so that I devoted my entire college thesis to it, so I may be checking that one out!

    Have a wonderful day!

  3. Very interesting and fascinating post, thank you for all the information. Marita and I took pictures of the tower and I got an excellent one I plan to put on a calendar. I never tire of seeing the tower and being in Paris. It is just so magnifique and the icon of Paris, a city I love.

  4. Hi Véronique, you always go so high above and beyond with wonderful research and colorful tangents… always a pleasure.

    When living in Paris as a student in 1986, I had a chambre de bonne with a window that perfectly framed the Eiffel tower, I could watch the light shows at night, and see the sunrise by it in the morning. No end of memories here. Merci…

  5. Ah, quel superbe post!!je suis contente que tu aies mentionné les deux grandes creations niçoises de M. Eiffel, bien moins celèbres que sa tour.Et je suis heureuse de la retrouver chaque fois que je vais a Paris!C’est un symbole tellement fort! Parfois , je regrette qu’on ait detruit tout ce qu’il y avait autour pendant l’expo, sur les vieilles photos certains batiments semblent avoir été eux aussi extraordinaires. Et que serait Paris sans la Tour Eiffel? je fremis rien que d’y penser!

    PS: pas d’appart sur la Prom? parce que:1) c’est tres cher;2) c’est tres bruyant, et le bruit ne s’arrete jamais, même la nuit;3)c’est pollué par les voitures;4) impossible de se garer;5) dur de faire les courses pour les meres de famille!Il y a tout un monde derrière la vision idyllique..

  6. Thank you for the amazing post about one of the most famous Paris sights. Incidentally, I was just thinking about the Eiffel tower in the context of my reflections about Edith Piaf. Is is true that she performed on the Eiffel Tower? Or was it just a recording?

  7. Magnifique mon chère! Of course you knew i”d love this post. I have a growing collection of la Tours in my living room and asst. art etc all over my home! I’m glad you mention Jonnes’ book. It was a special evening when we were fortunate to sit with her and hear her talk about the book. I for one will never tire of seeing her. I make a “pilgrimage” every trip and try and capture her in a new way. Of course I could never do that but it is fun for me to try and think out of the box.

    BTW, I love that they call Tour Montparnasse, the box that the Eiffel Tower came in! 🙂
    V

  8. Merci les amis. So you, too, like “the Old Lady”, eh? I so appreciate your thoughtful and encouraging comments on my blog every week. Thank you for stopping by once again. I have tried to reply to some of your questions on your own blogs. Come back soon! Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

  9. V- please do not think i have left your wonderful blog for greener pastures….i have been away for a while in the land of tsars and communists. a wonderful time, but glad to be home! 2 really GREAT posts comme d’hab- the photos are SIMPLY MAGNIFIQUE- what an eye your guy has. hope all is well with you and look forward to the next great read from our wonderful instructor out there on the left coast!!

  10. g– Welcome back, faithful reader! I have missed you. A trip to the land of tsars, eh? I am intrigued… Now do you have a blog where I can read about your adventures? I am glad you enjoyed the last two stories and le Husband’s pictures. Working on another French icon right now (story to be published next week.) — Veronique

  11. V-no….no blog….sadly i simply do not possess your talent for the written word-truly a talent! russia was really an experience-trying at times sometimes tiring but really unique-and i would definitely return given the chance. so love your posts-have a wonderful weekend–“talk to you on monday”-georgeanne(g)

  12. Excellent, le mot de Maupassant ! Mais il est un des rares à ne pas l’aimer, notre tour. Pour moi qui suis comme toi une ex-parisienne et une visiteuse régulière, la tour Eiffel reste synonyme de beauté et de magie.

  13. Great information on Gustave Eiffel and the Tower – you have researched this well. You know, I think the tower would not look as great if Paris did not have such strong City Planning laws – that sky scrapers cannot be built in Paris. Just imagine if the Tower was surrounded by huge buildings – it just would not look the same. When I was in our hotel at the Gare du Nord last May I could see the Tower from there, and that is a way off. Land is scarce in Paris and I am sure developers would love to get tall buildings in it, but it is wonderful that so far aesthetic has been stronger than money. I say so far because I heard that Sarkozy wants to change the laws and get big buildings in the center of Paris – he wants it to be more like New York.

  14. what another marvellous post veronique – I am learning so much about France from you blog – thanks!! I passed the Eiffel residence here on the Riviera recently – next door to the Villa Kerylos in Bealieu…

  15. Ma belle,

    C’est MAGNIFIQUE que nos deux billets soient reliés comme ça!!!!!!! Et tu sais, quand je suis allée à Paris, j’ai juré que j’allais monter au somment. Hmmmmmph! A la deuxième étage, j’ai eu PEUR, donc, je suis descendue….

    Mais l’histoire de ce monument me rend contente chaque fois que je vois l’image. Quelles supers photos et ton billet est parfait pour moi aujourd’hui; oui, Paris est toujours une bonne idée! BISES, Anita

  16. Mielenkiintoinen Kuva-Sarja – *Historiaa ja Nykyaikaa*…
    Eiffel-tornin synnystä – nykyaikaan…!
    Katselin kuviasi ihastellen –
    Syksy-Terveiset Eko…
    Suomi/Laplad/Kuusamo

  17. It’s amazing to think she was only meant to be temporary, so glad the powers that be at the time let her become a permanent fixture, a very wise decision indeed. I have heard that famous quote at the end before, I always though it was coined by the architect of Tour Montparnasse, I had no idea it originated from Guy de Maupassant regarding the Eiffel Tower, I always learn something new on your wonderful blog.

  18. Dearest Véronique,

    Great post and so informative too! About Lady Liberty, being connected to Mr. Eiffel I didn’t know either… Hats off to you and Junior for walking those 600 steps up! I went up with my Dad but not climbing myself!
    Love to you,

    Mariette

  19. Hi Véronique,

    I am very much enjoying going back through your fantastic blog reading your posts. I love all things French and now I have the perfect place to go for my French fix. Thank you for popping in at my blog and saying hi.

    Kel x

  20. Dear French Girl in Seattle…I found your blog by chance tonight while visiting another blog I follow. The name of your blog intriqued me, as I love anything French. The Eiffel Tower has been one of my favorite landmarks since I visited there 10 years ago. I laid in a nearby grassy lawn with friends I traveled with and we just gazed at her for two hours. We never walked up and toured the masterpiece..we just didn’t want to take our eyes off her beauty. I’ve never known the true story behind the architect. What a wealth of knowledge you’ve transferred to your reader..I much appreciate it! Merci~

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