the eiffel tower, "a 300 metre flagpole" -- 2/06/18

Today's selection -- from The Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne. During the Belle Epoque, Paris experienced a surge in technological innovation and a revitalization in architecture. The 1889 Exposition Universelle highlighted these achievements, and rising above them all was Eiffel's Tower:

"[T]he Eiffel Tower [was] designed to crown the 1889 Exposition. It was to mark the hundredth anniversary of the Revolution, but, more than that, it was to hail France's recovery [from its defeat in 1870-71 at the hands of Otto von Bismarck] and her spectacular entry into the modern world. Gustave Eiffel was an engineer of Alsatian origin, which fact perhaps helped gain popular support for his improbable project. His work on the construction of metal bridges and viaducts led him to propose for Paris what would then be the tallest building in the world -- making France, he said, 'the only country with a 300 metre flagpole.'

"Eager to do anything to restore Paris's pre-1870 standing as world leader, the city fathers supported this extraordinary and risky venture. It would arise from the foot of the Champ-de-Mars, and look across and down upon the site intended for the King of Rome's vast palace.

"The technology was formidable: using two and a half million rivets, 300 steeplejacks working flat out would run it up in the space of two years; it would weigh only 7,000 tonnes in total, exerting a deadweight pressure per square centimetre no greater than that of a man seated in a chair. It was intended to last for only twenty years, when its concession would expire, and it was saved from being dismantled in 1909 only because its huge radio antennae had become essential to the development of French radio telegraphy.

"But, predictably, some protests in the cultural community were violent. Gounod, Dumas fils and Garnier of Opéra fame were among fifty to sign a petition damn­ing Eiffel's project as 'a monstrous construction,' 'a hollow candlestick' or­ -- worse -- a 'solitary riddled suppositoire.' 'Metal asparagus' was another Parisian epithet. 'Douanier' Rousseau was one of the first artists to break ranks and treat it as a respectable subject for the canvas. But, as the alternative projects in the competition to commemorate the Revolution included a gigantic guillotine, for­tunately Eiffel's design triumphed, at a modest cost of fifteen million francs.

"On 31 March 1889, a sixty-strong party in top hats and tailcoats made the first official ascent -- on foot. Prime Minister Tirard gave up at the first platform, and only Eiffel and ten others braved it to the top, where he had the Légion d'Honneur pinned to his breast. On the first platform, the 300 workmen still in overalls feasted and quaffed champagne. The critics were derisive once more when, on the day of the tower's inauguration, 7 May, none of the lifts worked. Nevertheless, 'le Tour Eiffel qui monte au ciel,' [the Eiffel Tower that rises to heaven] in the words of the popular song, had arrived. Suicides and inventors of flying machines selected it as a jumping-off place (in 1964, a would-be suicide became the only one of 380 to survive after she landed on the roof of a car parked below)."



Alistair Horne


Seven Ages of Paris


Pegasus Books LLC


Copyright Alistair Horne 2002


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