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Eiffel Tower Protestors Divided Paris

Eiffel Tower Protestors believed the design of the proposed monument was nothing short of an assault on Paris. They said she was too tall, too metallic too awkward and downright homely. They also called her useless. Despite their best efforts, she was erected in a record-breaking 2 years, 2 months and 5 days. She was inaugurated on March 31, 1889.

France was preparing to host the upcoming 1889 Exposition Universelle. The World’s Fair presented a rich opportunity to celebrate the hundred-year anniversary of the French Revolution while showcasing France’s greatest achievements on a world stage. When Adolphe Alphand, the Minister of Works and Commissioner for the Exposition, and Gustave Eiffel pitched their design for the grand entrance to the fair, the trouble began.

The Iron Lady (Dame de Fer) was certainly not the first unpopular monument in history. The Statue of Liberty had trouble finding a U.S city that wanted her until Joseph Pulitzer crowdfunded her base. And that was after the Suez Canal rejected her initial design. Many structures ahead of their time were also protested, including the Brooklyn Bridge.

It’s easy to laugh now, but the Eiffel Tower protestors were in a large club of naysayers famously proven wrong over time. Among them is Thomas Edison who fought years for Direct Current before jumping sides. And of course, there were many people who said the automobile was too impractical to withstand the test of time. Others insisted bicycles were a hot fad that would soon pass.

Some of the Eiffel Tower Protestors officially switched position once the structure proved popular with the masses. Others stood fast. Among them, Guy de Maupassant reportedly ate lunch at the Eiffel Tower because he said it was one of the few places from which he could view the skyline of Paris without seeing the tower.

Not In Our Backyard!

Pamphlets and articles protesting the Eiffel Tower’s design appeared throughout the year of 1886. We can only imagine the proposal of an enormous metal tower in the center of Paris startled ordinary citizens as well as those in the business of art and aesthetics.

According to the TourEiffel.Paris many critics jumped into the fray. They offended hurled insults like:

“this truly tragic street lamp” (Léon Bloy), “this belfry skeleton” (Paul Verlaine)

“this mast of iron gymnasium apparatus, incomplete, confused and deformed” (François Coppée),

“this high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant ungainly skeleton upon a base that looks built to carry a colossal monument of Cyclops, but which just peters out into a ridiculous thin shape like a factory chimney” (Maupassant),

“a half-built factory pipe, a carcass waiting to be fleshed out with freestone or brick, a funnel-shaped grill, a hole-riddled suppository” (Joris-Karl Huysmans).

Forty-seven artists among the Eiffel Tower Protestors signed the official letter that was published in the newspaper “Le Temps” on February 14, 1887. Among them was Emile Zola, Alexandre Dumas son, Guy de Maupassant.

The following excerpts are translated from the original published letter in Europeana Newspapers.

“We have come, writers, painters, sculptors, architects, passionate enthusiasts of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, to protest with all our strength, all our indignation, in the name of the unknown French taste, in the name of art and of French history threatened, against the erection, in the heart of our capital, of the useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower, which public malignity, often marked by common sense and the spirit of justice, has already named of Tower of Babel. “

 “…all our shrunken architectures, which will disappear in this astonishing dream. And for twenty years, we will see how to stretch out over the entire city, still quivering with the genius of so many centuries, we will see the odious shadow of the odious column of bolted sheet metal stretch like an ink stain …”

“Finally, when the foreigners come to visit our Exhibition, they will exclaim, astonished: “What? It is this horror that the French have found to give us an idea of ​​their taste so much vaunted? And they will be right to make fun of us…”

Exposition Commissioner Adolphe Alphand Replied

“It is also to prove the greatness of France that we build this tower “vertiginously ridiculous” because who will dare to flout the honor of Paris, the city with the largest building ever built? Yes, certainly, I love Paris, I love its crowds, its markets, its monuments. I love everything in Paris and I would give everything for her, I certainly embellished Paris but this monumental work, with dantesque dimensions, will be the highlight of this universal exhibition, it will be my masterpiece. You describe my love of what is beautiful, what is great, what is right; but then, why these clamors? Why these screams? This passion? This work is created to demonstrate that there is no more beautiful city than Paris; by its size, this tower will make Paris sound as far as the East, through the icy steppes, the burning plains of the desert, through winds and tides, the whole world will hold its breath during the discovery of this gigantic tower; all will be amazed by the prowess of Paris.”

“…Finally, for the greater glory of Paris; and so from France, those who have the courage to dare to climb to the top of this titanic steel lady will discover a landscape like no other, they can then admire our sumptuous city in all its brilliance, discovering it with a point to another with its dazzling beauty that will always amaze the crowds. That’s why, dear colleagues of the aestheticism, I strive to make succeed this project of titan which needs the efforts of all, but especially, of the agreement of all. Our gesture can not be criticized, but must be encouraged, our project must be placed in the admiration of all good French.

We are building the future.

We are building the new city of Paris.

We build the Eiffel Tower.”

Gustave Eiffel Shot Back in Le Monde 1887:

“What are the reasons given by the artists to protest the erection of the tower? That she is useless and monstrous! We will talk about uselessness just now. For the moment we are dealing only with the aesthetic merit on which the artists are more particularly competent. I would like to know on what basis they base their judgment. Because, notice, sir, this tower, nobody saw it and no one, before it was built, could say what it will be. It is known until now only by a simple geometrical drawing; but, although it has been printed at hundreds of thousands of copies, is it possible to appreciate with skill the general artistic effect of a monument after a simple drawing, when this monument is so much of the dimensions already practiced and already known forms?

And if the tower, when it is built, was regarded as a beautiful and interesting thing, would the artists not regret having left so quickly and so lightly in the country?”

.”…Not only does the tower promise interesting observations for astronomy, meteorology and physics, not only will it allow wartime to keep Paris constantly connected to the rest of France, but it will at the same time be a striking proof of progress. made in this century by the art of engineers. It is only in our time, in recent years, that one could make calculations that are fairly reliable and work with precision enough to think of such a gigantic enterprise.”

They Gave Her Twenty Years

Structural work was finished by the end of March 1889. The tower didn’t open to the public until nine days after the start of the World’s Fair in May. Elevators and other facilities remained a work in progress. Still, 30,000 visitors climbed the stairs to the top before the elevators started operation on May 26. More than 1.8 million visitors toured the tower during the exposition.

The original permit expired in 1909, twenty years after its inauguration. By that time, the Eiffel Tower Protestors looked foolish.  The city allowed the iron lady to remain in place, claiming she was useful as a radio and later television transmitter.

An Eiffel Tower Side Note

Nellie Bly sped through France in November of 1889. She skipped the fair so she could visit Jules Verne at his home in the countryside. Elizabeth Bisland sped through in the opposite direction in 1890. She also skipped the Eiffel Tower. 

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2 Responses

  1. Very good article with primary sources cited. I wrote a chapter in my book, Alice & Eiffel, on the Artists’ Protest. They were his friends! The protest was a good-natured prank full of double entendres. Note the words “quivering” “erection” “odious column” “untouched beauty.” Even the guy who was one of three signatories who approved the tower nine months before signed the protest. Eiffel wrote back that he “esteemed” these men and that his “odious tower was gratified.”

    1. I look forward to reading your book. What a great dive into a fantastic era. Thanks so much for posting.

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