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On May 15, the Eiffel Tower, the world’s most celebrated monument and the iconic symbol of Paris, celebrates its 120th anniversary. Strikingly, the fame and allure of this improbable wrought-iron masterpiece have only grown with the passing decades. The tower, built by railway-bridge engineer Gustave Eiffel, has become a ubiquitous global image connoting modernity and glamour, while visitors who experience it firsthand are still amazed by the tower’s potent mixture of spare elegance, immensity and complexity. And when the Eiffel Tower opens to its adoring public each day, the structure comes to life as crowds gaily clamber up and down its stairs, eating, drinking and flirting on the three platforms high in the sky. Open to the elements, enveloped in Eiffel’s distinctive design, visitors can see and touch parts of the 18,038 pieces of iron (welded together with 2.5 million rivets) as they ascend heavenward.

The tower is so beloved that few today remember the storm of vitriol, mockery and lawsuits provoked by its selection as the startling centerpiece of the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle. (One of the losing entries was a gigantic working guillotine!) Even as Eiffel was breaking ground by the Seine River in February 1887, 47 of France’s greatest names decried in a letter to Le Temps the “odious column of bolted metal.” What person of good taste, this flock of intellectuals asked, could endure the thought of this “dizzily ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a black and gigantic factory chimney, crushing [all] beneath its barbarous mass”? The revered painters Ernest Meissonier and William-Adolphe Bouguereau, writers Guy de Maupassant and Alexandre Dumas fils, composer Charles Gounod and architect Charles Garnier all signed this epistolary call to arms, stating that “the Eiffel Tower, which even commercial America would not have, is without a doubt the dishonor of Paris.”

Gustave Eiffel, a self-made millionaire whose firm constructed much-admired bridges all over the world, happily twitted his critics: “They begin by declaring that my tower is not French. It is big enough and clumsy enough for the English or Americans, but it is not our style, they say. We are more occupied by little artistic bibelots. . . . Why should we not show the world what we can do in the way of great engineering projects?”

In fact, Eiffel was actually erecting what ambitious English and American engineers had only dreamed of for decades: a thousand-foot tower. “What was the main obstacle I had to overcome in designing the tower?” asked (and then answered) Eiffel: “Its resistance to wind” — a foe he had long ago bested in such pioneering bridge designs as his Pia Maria railway bridge in Oporto, Portugal. “And I submit that the curves of [the tower’s] four piers as produced by our calculations, rising from an enormous base and narrowing toward the top, will give a great impression of strength and beauty.” Eiffel the ardent republican wondered why his nay-saying compatriots could not see the glory. France, a lone republic surrounded by monarchies, was building “the tallest edifice ever raised by man,” a completely original industrial-strength monument made possible by new knowledge and technologies, a colossal modern wonder of the world designed to draw vast throngs to France’s Exposition Universelle.

The Americans did not hide their chagrin when they learned that at 1,000 feet the Eiffel Tower would dethrone their own 555-foot-tall Washington Monument, finally completed in 1884. Sniffed the New York Times’ Paris correspondent: “The French admit [the tower’s] originality and value, but they deplore its ugliness . . . au fond, they are not proud to show this gigantic iron structure to strangers. . . . [T]hey vote it an abomination and eyesore.” The Timesman insisted that the Washington Monument is “after all, more artistic than the Eiffel Tower.” In truth, as the Eiffel Tower rose gracefully into the Parisian sky, its unique modern beauty catapulted it to world acclaim. An entire industry rushed to churn out Eiffel Tower replicas, as Phillip Cate notes in his book “Eiffel Tower: A Tour de Force” — tiny gold charms, solid chocolate confections, giant garden ornaments, or the myriad images executed in “pen, pencil, and brush, in photo and lithography, in oil and pastel, on paper, canvas, on wood and ivory, on china, steel, and zinc.”

From the day the Eiffel Tower first opened on May 15, 1889, at 11:50 a.m., fairgoers flocked to ascend its giddy heights. From high up, they savored the spectacle of Paris looking tiny and the crowds down below coursing through the rococo Exposition, enjoying such novelties as Egyptian belly dancing, Japanese tea houses, Javanese dancers, wine from the world’s largest oaken cask (pulled to Paris by 10 pair of oxen), and the miracle of recorded sound at the Edison exhibit.

Those emerging from the elevator at the tower’s pinnacle might have glimpsed Gustave Eiffel himself, attired in dark Prince Albert suit and silk top hat, squiring around yet another politician, famous actor, gold-brocaded royal from France’s new colonial empire, or Buffalo Bill Cody, whose Wild West show in Neuilly was a sold-out sensation.

By the time Gustave Eiffel welcomed Thomas Edison to his celebrated monument that September, the tower was perhaps as famous as America’s most famous inventor. “Like everyone else I’ve come to see the Eiffel Tower,” Edison told a mob of journalists when he sailed into Le Havre. After his first visit to the fair, Edison said: “The Tower is a great idea. The glory of Eiffel is in the magnitude of the conception and the nerve in the execution.” Nor could Edison refrain from boasting that the U.S. would “build one of 2,000 feet. We’ll go Eiffel 100% better, without discount.”

When Eiffel heard of this later, he said, “We’ll see about that.” And not until 1929 (six years after Eiffel’s death) did another structure surpass the Eiffel Tower in height. It was the Chrysler Building at 1,046 feet. Two years later, the Empire State Building wrested away that title by reaching 1,250 feet. Moreover, while Gustave Eiffel’s original contract called for him to disassemble his tower after 20 years, he ensured the survival of his magnum opus by making it an indispensable part of the French military’s radio network.

Megaskyscrapers have long since overshadowed the Eiffel Tower’s status as the world’s tallest structure. And yet, the Eiffel Tower still speaks uniquely to the human fascination with science and technology and to the human desire for pleasure and joie de vivre. In 1889, Jules Simon, the republican politician and philosopher, declared, “We are all citizens of the Eiffel Tower,” a sentiment as true today as it was then.

Jill Jonnes
Wall Street Journal