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The Eiffel Tower under construction in July 1888.
The Eiffel Tower under construction in July 1888.
Roger Viollet/Getty Images

The Eiffel Tower debuted 126 years ago. It nearly tore Paris apart.

The Eiffel Tower opened to the public 126 years ago, on March 31, 1889. But it had been generating controversy for years before that. Today, it's an icon. At the time, the project was deemed a disaster by France's best aesthetic minds — and seen as a World's Fair gimmick that would hopefully be demolished as soon as possible.


The story started in 1886, when France held a contest for a striking centerpiece at the 1889 World's Fair that would celebrate the downfall of the Bastille. Entrepreneur Gustave Eiffel entered the running. He had experience building railroad bridges, and his proposal for a new monument — a tower — looked extremely industrial and was an unlikely entry in a field that already included some unusual competition (another proposed monument was a massive model of a guillotine).

As it turned out, French officials liked Eiffel's plan because he had technical expertise and an ambition to set new records for height. "The whole thing — to Eiffel — was that the French would have the tallest building in the world," says Jill Jonnes, author of Eiffel's Tower. "It would be twice as tall, and he knew technically how to do this."

But though Eiffel's tower planned to set records, it wasn't without controversy. The building was radically industrial, and that chafed against the sensibilities of more refined Parisians. The aggressively modern plans for the tower inspired intellectuals and artists to battle against it in an over-the-top letter in 1887. The new building created a clash between France's artistic and industrial voices.

Beginning construction of the Eiffel Tower in 1887 (FPG/Getty Images)

Joris-Karl Huysmans on the Eiffel Tower

As Eiffel's grand experiment dominated the Paris skyline, responses were fierce from French intellectuals and writers.

The Eiffel Tower in September, 1887.

Guy de Maupassant's scathing words for the Eiffel Tower

One of history's most famous short-story authors, Guy de Maupassant, was unsparing in his early criticism of the Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel Tower in January, 1888.

François Coppée's critique of the tower

The critique from artists was so scathing that Gustave Eiffel himself eventually felt the need to respond.

The Eiffel Tower in October and November 1888.

—Gustave Eiffel on February 14, 1887, in a letter responding to criticism

Eiffel's response appeared in Le Temps in 1887, where he tendered an artistic and intellectual defense of his tower. As construction of the tower progressed, it became easier to see the real impact it would make upon the Parisian landscape. "Once it was two-thirds up," Jonnes says, "opinion began to come around."

The Eiffel Tower in late December, 1888, nearing completion.

—Gustave Eiffel's letter, continued

By late 1888, it was possible to see the shape of the Eiffel Tower, and excitement for the 1889 World's Fair was building in the city. The tower was finished incredibly quickly — in total, it took two years, two months, and five days to build. Its legacy has lasted much longer.

The Eiffel Tower in 1900, 11 years after its debut.


Credits

  • Editor: Brad Plumer
  • Developer: Yuri Victor

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