Tribune Print Share Text

The story of the Eiffel Tower

Created date

September 23rd, 2014
Eiffel's tower book cover
Eiffel's tower book cover

Landmarks around the globe have become symbolic of the cities in which they stand. San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge; New York, the Statue of Liberty; and perhaps the best example, Paris and its Eiffel Tower.

A looming 1,060 feet of intricate iron latticework, the Eiffel Tower is an undeniably iconic structure. Since its completion in 1889, this metallic monolith has dominated the skyline, its name synonymous with Paris’s romantic reputation. 

Once considered an eyesore by many of the city’s denizens, the tower gradually evolved into the quintessential Parisian badge, an emblem of architectural innovation and national pride. Its construction was quite a feat, and author Jill Jonnes explores this fascinating topic in Eiffel’s Tower (Penguin, 2009).  

Some writers might have tackled the subject in more prosaic fashion, concentrating exclusively on engineer Gustave Eiffel and the tower itself. But much to her credit, Jonnes could see the forest for the trees.

A glittering time

Built as the centerpiece of the Paris World’s Fair of 1889, the Eiffel Tower was also at the center of the bustling Gilded Age. When Eiffel broke ground in 1887, electric light was a novelty, the moneyed elite were international celebrities, and artists like Whistler and Gauguin leading cultural luminaries. 

Jonnes rightly decided to take the more challenging, big-picture approach. The result is a brilliant history of the tower’s birth from concept to construction, as well as a tour of life in late nineteenth-century Paris.

In addition to detailed accounts of the preparations for the World’s Fair, Jonnes dishes about the scandalous antics of the city’s rich and powerful as if it were the latest juicy gossip. Particularly good is her coverage of the fabulously wealthy New York Herald heir James Gordon Bennett, Jr.

Following a drunken incident in Manhattan on New Year’s Day, 1877—one that involved a bodily function, a fireplace, and a parlor full of society women—Bennett found himself ostracized from New York circles. A pariah, he took up residence in Paris but refused to abandon his profane ways; the book is all the more interesting because of that.

Yet Jonnes never loses focus and skillfully ties together largely unrelated facets into a tight, harmonious narrative. Much as it was a focal point of the World’s Fair, the Eiffel Tower is at the core of this story. 

For almost three years, workers toiled, positioning iron girders and riveting them into place, seemingly impervious to the dizzying effects of altitude, which continued to rise as construction progressed. This edifice was unlike anything ever seen before then; even the elevators required a unique design to accommodate the slanted path of the tower’s supports.

Down to the minutest of aspects, it was a testament to man’s extraordinary capability. Despite the passage of nearly 130 years since the structure’s completion, it’s hard not to appreciate this achievement—especially after reading Jonnes’s book.