How the Eiffel Tower outlasted its critics

Author Jill Jonnes on Paris landmark’s evolution into an enduring symbol.

Peter Dejong/AP/File
People walk towards the illuminated Eiffel Tower in the French national colors red, white and blue in honor of the victims of the attacks last Friday in Paris, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015.

High-minded critics in France attacked the Eiffel Tower as it was being built, lobbing the most excruciating insult they could come up with. It was, they sputtered, positively awful, something even those uncouth Americans wouldn’t embrace.

Sacre bleu, mon dieu, and zut alors!

But it didn’t take long for the landmark, by far the tallest building in the world, to win over the critics. Well more than a century after its creation, the Eiffel Tower stands for “glamour, modernity, romance,” as historian Jill Jonnes puts it. In other words, she says, “Frenchiness.”

Now, in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, it proclaims something else: Worldwide solidarity, hope and resistance. A peace symbol with the lines of the Eiffel Tower embedded inside – the creation of a French graphic artist – now represents the sympathy and determination of an entire planet.

How did the Eiffel Tower come to life and turn around its detractors? To find the answers, I turned to Jonnes, the Baltimore author of 2009’s Eiffel's Tower: The Thrilling Story Behind Paris's Beloved Monument and the Extraordinary World's Fair That Introduced It.

As Jonnes explains, the Eiffel Tower temporarily vanquished the high hopes of the US (but we got the last laugh), is essentially a railroad bridge on its side, and was only supposed to exist for a couple decades.

“This is a building built in 1889,” she says, “but it has never lost its power.”

Q: What was on mind of the French when they build the Eiffel Tower for the 1889 World’s Fair?

The French had a history of hosting these expositions. The latest in everything would be showcased, and different countries would come and be part of them.

They decided they were going to have one in 1889, and that particular exposition would be to celebrate the downfall of the Bastille [100 years earlier] and the rise of the French republic and democracy. They wanted a very spectacular centerpiece that would attract people and, as we’d say these days, brand the fair.

At the time, the Americans were very proud that the tallest building at the time was theirs – the Washington Monument at 555 feet. The British and Americans had been talking about building a 1,000-foot tower, but they didn’t know what the wind would do to it.

Q: How did Eiffel get chosen to build the tower? 

They had a contest where people submitted their ideas. One of the the ideas was a gigantic guillotine as a celebration of the downfall of the monarchy, but the French government thought that was too bloodthirsty.

Meanwhile, Eiffel was a very famous, self-made railroad bridge engineer. He had built a number of famed railroad bridges in difficult situations. If you look at the Eiffel Tower, it is essentially an Eiffel railroad bridge standing on its feet.

Q: What did critics say when they attacked the Eiffel Tower in the early days of construction?

In the beginning, it looked hideously ugly with these gigantic, industrial footprints. There’s this very famous episode where all the esthetes of France – artists, literary people – drew together and wrote a scathing public letter denouncing the tower.

They said it looked like a hideous factory chimney, it was going to be 1,000 feet tall, way taller than anything else in Paris, and it would be there for 20 years. People also feared it might collapse because railroad bridges had collapsed.

There this wonderful phrase in the letter about how it’s such a barbaric industrial object that even the Americans wouldn’t build it.

But as the tower rose up, people began to change their minds. It’s a beautiful thing, and you could see that in the 19th century.

By the time the tower was done, most of these people with all these terrible things to say had really changed their minds. It became one of the most famous things in the world before it was even finished.

Q: What surprised you as you learned about the tower?

It was put together like a giant 3-D puzzle. All of the pieces were manufactured in Eiffel’s factories, and they’d be brought up the Seine on these barges.

There’s a phenomenal number of pieces, and each one had to be somewhat different since they were always moving up and at an angle. And it was built by 200 people, not vast hordes.

There was also a problem in getting the elevators up there. One of the rules of the fair was that everything had to be manufactured by French companies, but none could solve that problem.

The British and Americans were upset that the tower would be the tallest in the world, but Americans took a lot of solace in the fact that the French had to break their own rule to let the Otis Elevator Company of New York come and build the elevator. We felt better even though we’d been technologically done in.

Q: How did the Eiffel Tower evolve over time?

It became the symbol of Paris and France.

When the Nazis were in charge, there was this brief foray by Hitler into Paris, and he made sure to have himself photographed with the Eiffel Tower behind him. All through the war, the Nazi flag was on the tower.

When the occupation was over, but the Nazis were still around, they shot at French people who were climbing the tower to replace the Nazi flag with a homemade French flag. It just had became a tremendous symbol of France.

Q: What does the tower symbolize now?

If you pay attention, every day you’ll see the Eiffel Tower somewhere: In an ad, in an article, on a piece of clothing, or in a dry cleaning sign. It is really a ubiquitous symbol.

What it’s always conveying is glamour, modernity, romance – Frenchiness – which is pretty amazing. This is a building built in 1889, but it has never lost its power. It speaks.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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