Wednesday 26 June 2019

The Eiffel Tower celebrates 130 years, by Carol Drinkwater

Sunrise seen from the Eiffel Tower

This year in France, our very own Iron Lady has reached her 130th birthday. Le Tour Eiffel. Receiving close to 7 million visitors a year, it is the most visited monument in the world, but like so many other artistic endeavours it was not an easy birth. The plan to build a 300 metre high, iron construction was conceived as part of the celebrations for the World Fair of 1889, exactly one hundred years after the French Revolution.

The idea, its concept was met with some enthusiasm and a great deal of anger, mockery and vitriol.
Many from the world of arts and letters, including Guy de Maupassant, Alexandre Dumas junior, Charles Gounod, began in 1886 to campaign against an iron construction. Such a monstrosity, they argued, would overshadow the capital's iconic monuments. Pamphlets and articles were published. These were known collectively as La Protestations des Artistes. Charles Garnier, the renowned architect who designed the Paris Opera House and had collaborated with Gustave Eiffel on the magnificent dome of the Observatoire in Nice, was also amongst them. Paul Verlaine described the design as a "belfry skeleton". Others were far less kind.

                Caricature of Gustave Eiffel published in 1887 at the time of "The Artists' Protest"

Gustave's response to the criticism was:
"Do you think it is for their artistic value that the pyramids have so powerfully struck the imagination of men? What are they, after all, but artificial mountains? [The aesthetic impact of the pyramids was found in] the immensity of the effort and the grandeur of the result. My tower will be the highest structure that has ever been built by men. Why should that which is admirable in Egypt become hideous and ridiculous in Paris?"

In spite of the vociferous objections, the drilling and digging work for the foundations began on 28th January 1887. Remarkably, the tower was completed on 31st March 1889. It was a feat of engineering genius. That same year, for the World Fair, two million people visited the tower rising proudly skywards from the Champs-de-Mars.

                                                                    18th July 1887

7th Dec 1887

26th Dec 1988

A journalist of the time, Emile Goudeau, describes visiting the site just before its completion in January 1889. His excitement is palpable:
"A thick cloud of tar and coal smoke seized the throat, and we were deafened by the din of metal screaming beneath the hammer. Over there they were still working on the bolts: workmen with their iron bludgeons, perched on a ledge just a few centimetres wide, took turns at striking the bolts (these in fact were the rivets). One could have taken them for blacksmiths contentedly beating out a rhythm on an anvil in some village forge, except that these smiths were not striking up and down vertically, but horizontally, and as with each blow came a shower of sparks, these black figures, appearing larger than life against the background of the open sky, looked as if they were reaping lightning bolts in the clouds."

The tenth Exposition Universelle was held in Paris from 15th May to 6th November 1889. It was for this occasion that the tower had been conceived and built. The Exposition stretched over 95 hectares filling the Champ-de-Mars, Trocadero Hill and the banks all the way to the Invalides esplanade. The Eiffel Tower, at that stage the tallest structure in the world, dominated all of it. Those who had written and railed against it were silenced. This work of engineering genius, this architectural masterpiece, was a huge success. It drew crowds from all over the world and was intended to remain in situ for twenty years. That was 130 years ago.

Le Figaro, the French daily newspaper, set up a writing press on its second floor from where it produced a special edition of the paper.

Another rather wonderful attraction proposed to the visiting public was 'Print and Send Your Letters by Balloon'. "Printed on the Eiffel Tower". The Figaro reported "the Tower's company is doing its utmost to increase the number of attractions in favour of its clientele. It has just decided to put up for sale, on all the Tower's floors, small balloons and cheap parachutes arranged in such a way that one can attach a letter to them. The sender's address will be left blank. We wish the Tower's parachutes the same success as its postcards."
So many book ideas come flying into my mind when I read this!
The Eiffel Tower also played an important role in the popularity of the postcard as a form of communication.

Here is an Eiffel Tower post card by Libonis. It is named after the famous engraver.

The oldest postmark stamped on an Eiffel Tower postcard is 21st August 1889.

This one above is dated October 1889. I have no idea of its value today.

It was a year of festivities for the fair, the Exposition. Thousands and thousands of visitors flooded the city, crowding into the fair, and the high spirits were contagious.  The tower was lit up every evening with hundreds of gas lamps. A tricolour beacon housed in the campanile sent out three signals: blue, white, and red. These illuminations could be seen all across Paris. A baker on stilts from the Landes region climbed the entire 347 steps that led to the first floor!

                                          Gustave Eiffel December 1832 - December 1923

Gustav Eiffel, born in Dijon, graduate of the École Centrale Paris, civil engineer, builder of many bridges and viaducts both in France and across the world, collaborator in the construction of the Statue of Liberty in New York, was the creator of the tower, the vision behind it. He kept his office on the very top floor. On that same level he received his second Légion d'Honneur (Knight and Officer) at the inauguration of the tower in 1889.

I am inspired by this man's story. His determination against all the odds, the criticism from many of the finest minds in the land, to build his tower, to see his vision through.

This year, if you are in Paris, even if you have visited the Eiffel Tower before, do pay it another few hours of your time. There are celebrations on every level, special restaurant offerings, walk its gardens and remember the man, the genius, who fought for its existence. You can even visit Gustave's office on the top floor where you will find the figure of him with the American inventor, Thomas Edison, who paid Gustave a visit there and offered him one of his own inventions, a phonograph.
An uplifting story relates how Gustave on 10th September 1889, spotting the composer Charles Gounod dining in one of the Eiffel Tower restaurants, invited him up to his high-altitude office to join him and some other guests for coffee. It was a moment of reconciliation because Gounod had been one of the loudest voices against the construction of the tower.

I have taken a fair amount of the information here from the official Eiffel Tower website, including photos. It is well worth scrolling through:



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