The Remarkable History of the Eiffel Tower

  • 18, Apr 2019
  • All things Paris
  • Anna Livesey

It’s the most visited monument in the world and the purest symbol of Paris, but did you know that the Eiffel Tower was only intended to stand for twenty years? Contemporaries called it an iron monster and the shame of France, longing for the day when the tower would vacate the Parisian skyline. But though its status as the world’s tallest man-made structure only lasted 41 years, this ‘Iron Lady’ has proved herself to be immortal. 130 years since the Eiffel Tower’s spectacular inauguration, discover the story of Paris’ best loved monument.

Want to discover this very same story in musical theatre form? The Tower of Monsieur Eiffel (La Tour de 300 mètres) is an all new musical reimagining of the incredible story behind the building of Paris’ most iconic monument. Celebrate 130 years of history with an unforgettable night at the theatre.

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Poster for the 1889 Universal Exposition
Photo of the Eiffel Tower at the 1889 Universal Exposition

Paris seeks to prove its prowess

Our story begins back in 1884, at the glorious height of the Belle-Époque period. Almost a hundred tumultuous years since the start of the French Revolution, the country was experiencing an economic, cultural, and technological boom. To mark the occasion of this momentous centenary, it was decided that Paris would host the 1889 Universal Exhibition, an elaborate display of scientific and technological advances, featuring contributors from across the globe. France’s own industrial prowess was, naturally, to provide the backdrop – and what better manifestation of that than a towering iron structure sitting right at the exhibition’s grand entrance?

Gustav Eiffel's blueprints
Gustav Eiffel's blueprints

Monsieur Eiffel’s Tower triumphs

The French government issued a call for structural plans, inviting architects to “study the possibility of erecting an iron tower on the Champ-de-Mars with a square base, 125 metres across and 300 metres tall”. It was a challenge of Herculean proportions… just the kind to tempt two ambitious engineers working under the auspices of the illustrious Monsieur Gustave Eiffel. Eiffel’s company had already cut its teeth on high-profile projects in France and abroad, including the renovation of legendary Parisian cabaret house, the Paradis Latin, and even the construction of New York's Statue of Liberty. Out of a hundred designs submitted to the exhibition panel, only those of Eiffel and his engineers were judged sufficiently thought through to be feasible. Operation Bring Paris The World’s Tallest Manmade Structure was go.

Charles Garnier, architect of the Paris Opera
Writer Guy de Maupassant

Make the “ghastly dream” go away

But all was not yet rosy for Monsieur Eiffel and his team. Release of their architectural plans caused a public uproar, with many contemporaries issuing statements of horror and disbelief. Some considered the building of a tower at such height to be, quite simply, an impossible task. Others attacked Eiffel from an aesthetic standpoint, calling his tower an affront to French taste and the Parisian skyline. A ‘Committee of 300’ leading figures from the arts was formed to campaign against the build, led by legendary architect of the Paris Opera, Charles Garnier, and including the likes of writers Guy de Maupassant and Alexandre Dumas Jr. The committee’s petition, ‘Artists Against the Eiffel Tower’, called on the Universal Exhibition’s management to revoke plans for the “giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe”.

Gradual images of the construction of the Eiffel Tower

On with the build

Despite these diverse detractors, construction of Eiffel’s tower went ahead on 26 January 1887. Blueprints consisting of 3,629 detailed drawings guided the joining of 18,038 parts by 300 on-site employees, using 2.5 million rivets. All of that and the build was still successfully completed just 26 months after its launch, a record speed given the rudimentary methods of the time. On 31 March 1889, just hours after his team had put the finishing touches to the tower’s structure, Monsieur Eiffel welcomed journalists and government officials for an inaugural tour. Those braving the climb to the top (lifts would not be installed for another three months) were rewarded by the site of Eiffel crowning his creation with its first tricolour flag.

Eiffel Tower as a technological advancement

The public changes its tune

Eiffel’s tower was an instant success upon its opening to the public, and by the end of the exhibition had received almost 2 million visitors. Some critics reversed their opinions, others remained unconvinced. One of Eiffel’s stauncher disparagers, Guy de Maupassant reputedly lunched daily in the tower’s restaurant because only from there would the monument be invisible to him. But the ultimate sign of the tower’s success was Paris’ decision to let it stay. The city abandoned plans to tear the structure down after 20 years, when it proved its use as a telegraph pole for the first wireless transmissions. Eiffel’s monument even served in the First World War: in 1914 the tower’s radio transmitter blocked German communications, hindering them in their advance towards Paris.

Eiffel Tower with miniature keyring in the forefront

Eiffel’s Tower today

The Eiffel Tower held its title as the world’s tallest building until 1930, when it was trumped by the Chrysler Building in New York. Contrary to the expectations of its contemporary critics, rather than bringing shame on its surroundings, the tower became Paris’ foremost monument and most iconic emblem. Today it attracts approximately 7 million visitors each year, making it the most visited paid-for monument in the world. A true feat of human innovation, Eiffel’s Iron Lady has become the jewel in Paris’ architectural crown.

The Tower of Monsieur Eiffel Poster
Cast of The Tower of Monsieur Eiffel

Now that you have the low down on the story of the Eiffel Tower, why not watch it all unfold in theatrical form at a gorgeous Parisian playhouse? The Tower of Monsieur Eiffel (La Tour de 300 mètres) is an all new musical theatre romp through the twists and turns in the fortunes of Paris’ most iconic monument. Meet an all singing, all dancing cast of characters including Maupassant and Thomas Edison, Monsieur Eiffel’s daughter Claire and, of course, her legendary father himself.

And the best news is, thanks to subtitles translated by the Theatre in Paris team, the show is 100% accessible for English speakers. You can catch the show in the heart of the Parisian theatre at Théâtre Mathurins.

Want to expand your insider Eiffel Tower knowledge even further? Discover other articles from the All Things Paris blog...

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