“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
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 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)|
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 Savoye Images)|
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.
(Photos by Savoye Images)
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.
|(Photos by Savoye Images)|
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…|
|Junior and I have climbed the 600 stairs to the 2nd floor many times!|
|Summer 1944: Paris is liberated, and American G.I.s turn into tourists|
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”