Ah, la tour Eiffel! When I first saw her I said to my roommate at the time, “Emily, this is it. I can die now. Just bury me in the ground right here and leave me.” Arguably the most famous structure in modern history, the 324 meter-high iron lattice attracts more visitors than any other paid tourist attraction in the world; and honestly, RIGHTFULLY SO. It’s just so pretty I could cry! When people ask me if Paris is worth a visit, this is easily the first thing I think of, and if I’m being totally honest, I definitely dream about her at night…
Though named after the renowned architect and civil engineer, Gustave Eiffel, the design of the tower was created by Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nouguier, two senior engineers employed at the Compagnie des Établissements Eiffel. The architectural firm created the tower as a submission for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, otherwise called the World’s Fair, which was in celebration of the centennial of the French Revolution. Though becoming his namesake, Eiffel had little interest in the design and brushed it off, while fortunately approving the design for further adaptation. It was then that Koechlin and Nouguier reached out to Stephen Sauvestre who was the head of the company’s architectural department. Sauvestre added decorative arches to the base of the tower, a glass pavilion to the first level, and other exquisite embellishments, all of which finally convinced Eiffel to fully support the design as his company’s submission for the Exposition Universelle.
Now, in all fairness to Monsieur Eiffel, even though he neither designed the tower, nor supported it at first, once Eiffel was on board, it was full steam ahead. The design won the bid and Eiffel immediately began working on obtaining the required resources and land needed to build the masterpiece. The Eiffel Company was only given 1.5 million francs toward the construction costs which was less than a quarter of the estimated 6.5 million francs that it would cost to build the tower. The majority of the money needed to build the Eiffel tower was fronted by Eiffel himself, actualising the dreams of many within his firm.
Eiffel wasn’t the only person who did not fancy the tower in the beginning; Parisians loathed the conceptual plans for the massive iron structure and were not shy about their intense acrimony towards the design. Artists from around the city were even as emboldened as to call a meeting of all the creative minds in Paris to discuss the creation of an oppositional plot against the construction of the tower. The irate group of artists drafted a scathing letter denouncing the building, calling it a “barbaric” and “industrial object that even the Americans wouldn’t build.” The letter went on to draw even more dramatic and pretentious comparisons, calling it “a hideous factory chimney” that would crush all other monuments “under its barbaric bulk.” The artists deemed themselves “passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris” who were protesting with all their strength, “in the name of slighted French taste.” Even as a francophile, if I weren’t certain before that the French had a penchant for melodrama, I am now.
Despite the original outrage, the tower was an immediate success one it was completed nearly two years after the commencement of construction. It took around 300 workers to assemble the 18,038 pieces of wrought iron and 2.5 million rivets. The tower was technically finished in March of 1889, but was not opened to the public until May 6th, which was over a week after the opening of the exposition. Almost 30,000 people climbed their way up to the top before the elevators were put into operation on May 26th and by the end of the exhibition there had been 1,896,987 visitors in total. The tower itself served as a centerpiece of the exhibition, but also contained attractions in it’s own right, such as an office and a printing press run by the French newspaper Le Figaro, a pâtisserie, and a post office where visitors could send letters and postcards as a souvenir of their visit.
Though the tower was originally designed to be torn down after 20 years, Eiffel was determined to establish the tower’s permanence and went to great lengths to prove its scientific utility. Experiments were conducted in the fields of astronomy and physiology. Eiffel made use of his apartment at the top of the tower to carry out meteorological observations, and also used the tower to perform experiments on the action of air resistance on falling bodies, which sounds very impressive, but let’s be honest, he was basically just dropping stuff off of a large building… which is essentially what everyone wants to do when they’re up really, REALLY high.
What ultimately saved the Tower was its use as a radio antenna tower. In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, a radio transmitter located in the tower jammed German radio communications, seriously hindering their advance on Paris and contributing to the Allied victory at the First Battle of the Marne. Today, the tower contains 120 antennas. 32 radio stations and 40 TV channels broadcast from the top of the monument.
I believe the tower became most iconic, however, when the Germans occupied Paris in 1940. The monument became a symbol of resistance and was one of the major symbols of hope of the French people. Resistance members even cut the elevator cables so that German soldiers had to climb the tower if they wanted to plant their flag after occupation, which, they of course painstakingly accomplished. Amusingly enough, the flag was so large it blew away just a few hours later, and had to be replaced by a smaller one, which was not as easily seen from below. The Germans also hoisted banners describing German victory, but the French resistance would often change letters on the marquis to read differently than the original message.
The Eiffel Tower became a permanent fixture in 1909. Since then, the structure has undergone changes ranging from regular upkeep to the addition of two restaurants. Every seven years, painters must repaint the entire tower completely by hand using only brushes and over 60 tons of paint. It has changed color several times, passing from red-brown to yellow-gold, then to chestnut brown and finally to the bronze of today, slightly shaded off towards the top to ensure that the color is perceived to be the same all the way up. The painters precariously place themselves between the iron grids up to 1,000 feet high, I REPEAT: ONLY USING PAINTBRUSHES. No thanks. I’m good. I couldn’t even paint my own bedroom…
In 1999, 20,000 sparkling lights were added to celebrate the new millennium. While originally designed to be temporary, the lights have become permanent, much like the legacy of the tower itself. Now the lights go off every hour, on the hour for 5 minutes after dark. This is by far my favorite feature and always feels incredibly magical.