France: Happy 120th, La Tour Eiffel

Gustave Eiffel beneath his tower.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

PARIS – It’s still the beacon of Paris – 120 years later. When built as a temporary exhibit for the 1889 “universal” fair in Paris, the Eiffel Tower was the planet’s highest structure. Today it’s one of the most emblematic – a symbol of the launch of modernity, an artist’s icon, a destination for lovers who propose marriage at 1,000 feet.

For the 120th there’s an exhibit on Gustave Eiffel – who also worked on the Statue of Liberty – the “iron magician” behind the revolutionary design. So revered is the Eiffel that it’s a shock at 120 to find out how close it came to being torn down.

Art and culture critics trashed the tower: “a monstrous barbaric mass,” “a black, gigantic factory chimney.” Belle Époque humorist Tristan Bernard liked climbing it, he said, because once up, “it is the only place in Paris where you don’t have to look at it.”

In time, the tower grew on Parisians. Its shape is grand, yet always “seems touchable,” says one. In early years, before air flight, and for residents of a city with narrow streets and endless five-story buildings, the sight of everyday Paris from atop the tower was reputedly a mind-expanding experience.

Constant plans to tear down the tower got scotched when French Gen. Gustave Ferrie used it for “radiotelegraphy.” Crucial transmissions in World War I battles like the Marne came to be relied on.

On Sept. 27, the Eiffel hosts 28 envoys of the World Federation of Great Towers. Currently a Greek company is repainting the Eiffel – 25 painters over 18 months are swabbing on 60 tons of rustproofing.

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