La Tour Eiffel is the beloved symbol of the capital of France. Its presence is felt even when it cannot be seen.
During my first visit to Paris, many years ago, I sent a postcard home to my folks. It read, “Mom and Dad, my hotel is amazing. If I throw open the shutters, lean halfway out the window and twist my body to the left, I can see the outside corner of the second level of the Eiffel Tower!” When viewed from a distant rooftop it beckons, romantic and diaphanous, delicate yet steadfastly anchored onto the Champs de Mars. Sometimes, when turning a corner, it startles you with its proximity, bringing a flush of admiration to the cheek. It doesn’t matter from which direction you approach it, the proportions and aesthetics are always perfect.
Standing directly underneath and in between the four pillars which support the tower, the latticed ironwork pattern is dazzling. But the City of Light’s most distinguished landmark was not unanimously well-received.
It had a traumatic birth. Yes, Monsieur Eiffel’s tower, designed for the Universal Exhibition of 1889, was applauded by some, but it was abhorred by many, including a smattering of the most influential and prominent of Parisians.
An article appeared in “Le Temps” entitled, The Artists’ Protest. Signed by Guy de Maupassant, as well as other esteemed members of the Academie Francaise and the Ecole des Beaux Arts, the letter expressed great displeasure regarding the erection of the “useless and monstrous Tour Eiffel” designed by the “machine constructor”. These vehement detractors called it “the dishonor of Paris” and the letter states, “Writers, painters, sculptors, architects and amateurs, impassioned by the beauty of Paris, until now intact, we come to protest with indignation in the name of slighted French taste”. “Eiffel’s Folly” was the talk of the town, and one could not help but be aware of the controversy, as the tower loomed above the city, and declared itself to be the tallest structure in the world.
It was an oddity. Bold and innovative, its genius creator was the world’s leading authority on the aerodynamics of high frames. Bridge building was his specialty. So smooth were his calculations, that even in the strongest of winds, the structure never sways more than four and a half inches.
In 1889, the newspaper, Le Figaro, installed a printing press on the second level, and visitors who bought a paper, could have their name printed on it as a “certificate of ascent”. An antenna was installed at the top of the tower, which gave it purpose: the transmission of telegraphy signals. This function probably saved the Eiffel Tower from slated demolition.
Gustave Eiffel’s triumph of art expressed through science and engineering began to win the hearts of both travelers and resident Parisians.
The artist, Marc Chagall had a particularly enchanting way of portraying the tower in his paintings. Like a magic charm, it draws you into his world of whimsy and romance, giving rise to the acceptance of the Tour Eiffel, as the quirky, undisputed Mistress of Paris.
She stages events and wreaks havoc with your emotions. In 1937, the largest chandelier in the world was hung under the first platform. It contained ten kilometers of florescent tubes which, connected to thirty projectors, splashed red, white and blue bursts of color into the night sky.
In 1940, the decision was made to cut the elevator and electric cables to render the tower and valuable radio transmitter useless to the occupying German forces. It wasn’t until Liberation in 1945 and the end of World War II, that the cables were repaired. In appreciation, soldiers of the Allied Forces were invited to go up to the top for free.
In 1956, the Eiffel Tower appears many times in the classic, charming film, Funny Face, starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.
Americans were falling madly in love with Audrey and Paris.
Then in 1959 the ascent of the thirty-five millionth visitor, a boy of ten, was celebrated. The grandson of Gustave Eiffel handed him the keys to a brand new car, but unfortunately, neither of the boy’s parents knew how to drive.
Royals were greeted, wined and dined on the tower, acrobats performed daredevil stunts, Arnold Palmer swung his golf club on level two. On April 25th, 1997, an illuminated clock was hung to count down the remaining one thousand days until beginning of the New Millenium, the year 2000.
Every decade ushers in new throngs of worshippers, and waiting in line to ride the elevators can be exasperating. One blustery December night in 1999, I chose the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator to take me back down from the top. The wind was whipping. I planted each foot securely with a resounding clank and held onto the railing for dear life. I wanted to close my eyes, but of course I couldn’t. I decided to count steps. That made me nauseous. I had the same feeling while descending the rock face, unsecured, on a metal ladder, above the Mer De Glace Glacier in Chamonix.
Fortunately the French have a gastronomic cure for everything. A glass of excellent red accompanied by a classic soupe a l’oignon and, voila. Bravo, bravo, Monsieur Eiffel!
I quote my nephew, upon returning from his first trip to Paris,
“That tower, Dude, it’s awesome.”