The Eiffel Tower: A Star Is Born

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Protest and Progress

A letter protesting the construction of the Eiffel Tower was published in Paris on February 14, 1887, less than three weeks after Gustave Eiffel broke ground on the tower that would far overtake the Washington Monument as the world’s tallest manmade structure.

The letter was signed by dozens of “personalities from the world of arts and letters,” and though many of the signatories were little known or merely fashionable artists of the day, the letter did carry the weight of such respected voices as Charles Gounod (composer of Faust), Charles Garnier (architect of the Paris Opera), and the writers Guy de Maupassant and Alexandre Dumas fils.

The artists, declaring themselves “passionate about the beauty hitherto intact of Paris,” denounced the planned 300-meter/1000-foot tower as “useless and monstrous,” “a horrendous column of bolted sheet iron.” They claimed that it would “profane” and “dishonor” Paris to have the city government associate itself with “the mercantile imaginings of a constructor of machines.”

“Not even commercial America would want it,” they said.

And they were right.

Eiffel’s project was monstrous. The tower would dominate the low, dense skyline of the City of Light, and do so for no other reason than to demonstrate to what heights it was possible with iron and to attract visitors to the World’s Fair of 1889.

They were right that the tower would eclipse Paris’s glorious monuments of decades and centuries past and that the “beauty hitherto intact of Paris” would be changed in ways hitherto unimaginable. They were right that the tower’s stature would command attention to the point of becoming the very symbol of Paris. And how could Paris be Paris if symbolized by a useless pile of iron? Didn’t beauty and history demand that the French capital be represented by religious monuments such as Notre-Dame or Sacré Coeur (then under construction on Montmartre), or by monuments honoring national glory through war, such as the Arc de Triomphe or the Invalides, or at the very least by the Louvre, a monument to both majesty and art?

They were right that commercial America wouldn’t even have wanted something as frivolous and meaningless as a 1000-foot tower in 1887. At the time, Las Vegas had barely heard of the Can-Can! It would be another 110 years before it got an Eiffel Tower.

They were right about Eiffel’s tower being profane.

But they were on the wrong side of history—and progress. And Gustave Eiffel stood clearly on the other side.

Gustave Eiffel

By the time he embarked on the tower, Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) was already a successful engineer at the head of an engineering firm of international renown. Bridges and viaducts were his company’s specialty, built in response to enormous growth of railway networks, yet it also designed the metal framework for a variety of structures. In Paris, Eiffel’s company designed the framework for the church of Notre-Dame-des-Champs (6th arr.), the synagogue on rue des Tournelles (3rd arr.), and the Bon Marché department store (7th arr.). The company carried out major projects throughout France as well as in Spain, Portugal, Romania, Egypt, Hungary and Latin America. Eiffel’s company also designed the metallic structure that supports the Statue of Liberty.

In 1884 Gustave Eiffel patented plans for a 300-meter/1000-foot tower standing on four pillars 125 meters/410 feet apart, doing so in the names of his collaborators Emile Nourguier and Maurice Koechlin and himself. There was no actual project to build the tower when Nourguier and Koechlin (long-forgotten names) drew up the original plans, though the possibility of such a colossal structure did grasp the imagination. And Eiffel was well aware that the government intended to approve plans for Paris to host a World’s Fair (Exposition universelle) in 1889.

In addition to his engineering skills and the reputation of his company, Eiffel was a wise businessman who knew how to play politics, deal with financial institutions, communicate with the press, take risks, and get things done. He knew how to convince the organizers of the Fair that his tower was just the thing that was needed to draw attention to the event and demonstrate the industrial potential of the host nation.

In 1886, the organizers launched a competition for plans to built a 300-meter tower, mostly of iron, with a square base 125 meters wide. It was obviously rigged to allow Eiffel to build his tower.

The Eiffel Tower, as it was soon called, was completed on time and within budget in 2 years, 2 months, 5 days. Though practical solutions needed to be found along the way, particularly in preparing the foundations on the pillars on the sandy Seine side of the structure, Eiffel wasn’t a man to embark on a project he wasn’t sure would succeed. In response to complaints from distant neighbors, his company assumed all risks of the tower falling during construction.

Great Heights

In 1884, the Washington Monument had topped out at 600 feet and become the world’s highest manmade structure. Five years later, the Eiffel Tower, reaching 1023, took over as number one. It wasn’t height alone that set the two apart, but, just as importantly, weight. The Washington Monument made for a fine monument of masonry, but weighing in at 90,000 tons, it was a construction of the past. The future was in metal and alloys. The iron of the Eiffel Tower weighed in at a mere 7,300 tons, so light for its size that if placed in a box large enough to enclose the tower it would float at sea (hard to imagine but give it a bit of thought anyway). It remained the highest manmade structure from 1889 until 1930, when the Chrysler Building in New York briefly took over the mantle at 1046 feet.

The organizers of the World’s Fair of 1889 had requested that the tower be built only with French materials, but when it came to creating the elevators no French company was experienced enough to take the risk of an elevator that would cover the variably inclined middle portion. Therefore the American elevator company Otis was invited to construct the hydraulic elevators running from the base to the second level.

Also, the original plans called for no decorative elements, but in the end a decorative trim was added in the form of small arches beneath the first level, and just above the arches were placed the names of 72 French scientists famous for their role in scientific advancements from 1789 to 1889.

Even without decoration, Eiffel had argued in his response to the protest letter in February 1887, “the Tower will have her own beauty.” “Her curves…will give a great impression of strength and beauty.” (A tower is a feminine noun in French; the Eiffel Tower is therefore also known as la Dame de Fer, the Iron Lady.) “Furthermore,” he wrote, “the colossal has an attraction, its own charm, to which ordinary theories of art are hardly applicable.”

The skyscraper was born.

© Gary Lee Kraut


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