The Eiffel Tower has, for well over a century, been one of the most iconic and awe-inspiring landmarks in the world. Not only does these 1,063 feet (324 meter) tall tower dominate the Parisian skyline, it is also one of the greatest attractions of the la Ville Lumière (City of Lights). It is also one of the most-visited monuments anywhere in the world with a little less than seven million people ascending to the top of the tower in 2015. The history of the construction and continued existence of this great tower, however, has not been free from controversy or criticism. The story of the Eiffel Tower provides us valuable insights into the social and cultural evolution of the French capital city and its people.
The origins of the Eiffel Tower
1889 was an important year for France. It marked the centenary of the French revolution and the Storming of the Bastille. To commemorate this landmark year, it was concluded that the Exposition Universelle, a world fair, would be held in Paris, the capital of France. It was also decided that a majestic centerpiece would be constructed on Champ-de-Mars which was to serve as the entrance to the exposition. The monument was to highlight the engineering brilliance of the country.
Over 100 designers submitted their entries for the construction of this monument. The design that was finally chosen belonged to renowned architect and metal works expert Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel supported by his associate Stephen Sauvestre and structural engineers, Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier. Eiffel had already gained considerable popularity after replacing the initial designer of the Statue of Liberty’s interior after the latter’s death.
The protest against the tower’s construction
It may come as a great surprise to those who now see the Eiffel Tower as a great symbol of French excellence and perhaps romance too that Eiffel’s rather futuristic and bohemian design of this new monument was met by a lot of criticism. Over 300 artists and creative intellectuals from Paris lodged a protest against its construction. They signed a petition which was published in a famous Parisian newspaper called the Le Temps. The petition said, “We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate lovers of the beauty, until now intact, of Paris, hereby protest with all our might, with all our indignation, in the name of French taste gone unrecognized, in the name of French art and history under threat, against the construction, in the very heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower.”
Criticism apart, the construction of the Eiffel Tower was fraught with many challenges. The structural integrity of the structure was repeatedly questioned; the slanting angles of the columns that supported the horizontal beams were feared. The resources allocated by the French government were only about 1.5 million Francs – a quarter of the estimated construction costs. With great determination Gustave Eiffel went about gaining the support of the French government and embarked on the construction. He put together a team of 300 on-site workers who worked for 2 years, 2 months, and 5 days to complete the construction of the Eiffel Tower (in time for the Exposition Universelle). The construction of the tower is believed to have taken some 7,300 tons of wrought iron, 2,500,000 rivets and 60 tons of paint. The 10,100-ton structure was completed on March 31, 1889.
The tallest monument
When its construction was completed, the Eiffel Tower became the tallest man-made structure on earth. This accolade had previously been held by the Washington Monument (which was completed in 1888). The Washington Monument measures 555 feet (column and pyramidion). The Eiffel Tower retained the glory of being the world’s tallest monument for over four decades. It was surpassed in 1930 by the Chrysler Building. The tower now has three levels. The observation deck on the top level is at a height of 906 feet from the ground. It is accessible by an elevator from the second level and is the highest observation deck open to public in the European Union.
Plans for the Eiffel Tower’s destruction
Since the costs were only partially footed by the French government, over three-fourth of the construction costs were borne by Eiffel himself. He had a 20-year lease on the monument and earned the profits from the visitors’ tickets for these two decades to cover his costs. Following this 20-year period, it was decided that the Eiffel Tower would be torn down and it would be disassembled for scrap. In an attempt to save the Eiffel Tower from destruction Gustave Eiffel set up an antenna on top of the tower and supported experiments that helped wireless telegraphy. This proved to be a priceless development and the French military found this wireless telegraphy very important and cancelled any plans for the tower’s demolition. Currently there are over 100 antennae atop the tower.
By the time World War I erupted, the tower’s wireless station had become indispensable for the French military. It is believed that renowned German spy Mata Hari was arrested and convicted based on the messages (between Germany and Spain) intercepted by this very station. Later, during World War II, with the German forces occupying France, the tower was closed to the public and the Nazis attempted to fix a Swastika atop the tower.
Over the years the Eiffel Tower has been the site of many famous feats. From being the frame of the world’s biggest advertisement to (Citroen’s billboard from 1925 to 1934) to housing a scientific laboratory where some of the finest physicists of France conducted their experiments, from being home to a glitzy restaurant to the scene of daring stunts, from being a well-loved global landmark to representing Paris – the avatars of the Eiffel Tower keep growing, quite like its captivating story.