Paris, in the early 1880s. Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) was in his fifties. Having already created countless bridges, stations, churches, metallic structures for diverse buildings, and even the frame of the Statue of Liberty for his friend Bartholdi, he wanted to make a splash. After all, the 1889 Exposition Universelle was just around the corner. The event was even more important in that it heralded the hundred-year anniversary of the French Revolution. But what could he contribute?
The idea of gigantic towers was in the collective imagination, with the English and the Americans able to think of little else. The Washington Monument had been completed in 1884, standing at a mere 555 feet tall. Designed several years before, a project for a 984-foot tower in Philadelphia had never come to fruition. Meanwhile, in France, plans for a stone column with similar dimensions had also hit a brick wall. One day in June 1884, Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier, Eiffel’s two most trusted employees, walked into their boss’s office. “You asked us to come up with some monument ideas for the Exposition Universelle? Well, we have something to show you,” they said. Koechlin flattened a design out on the table. “A pylon?” exclaimed Eiffel. “No! A tower, a thousand feet high!” replied Koechlin.
Eiffel was hardly enthusiastic. But instead of rejecting the project, he asked Koechlin and Nouguier to make some adjustments. Three months later, the pair returned with the same project, but had called on architect Stephen Sauvestre to totally redesign it. The tower looked nothing like a bridge column or a pylon, the base had been widened, and monumental arches connected the four supporting pillars and the first floor. With the revisited plans, the tower had adopted a stylish new look. And what better way of celebrating technical progress than by building a metal edifice?
A Towering Tribute to Lost Love
Gustave Eiffel was finally interested. In a romanticized biography set to be published in April, La vraie vie de Gustave Eiffel, Christine Kerdellant pictured the scene: “He examined the design from every angle. Something was strangely familiar. Suddenly, he understood: The tower looked like a gigantic, pointed capital ‘A,’ gently curved and beautifully drawn as if with a quill. ‘A’ for Adrienne. ‘A’ for Alice. As if brandishing his past loves, lost, fantasized or idealized, a thousand feet high for all the world to see.”
Adrienne was a young girl from Bordeaux whose father, Marcelin Bourgès, had refused to accept Eiffel’s proposition of marriage. Alice was his cousin with whom he was desperately in love. As children, the pair would meet every summer near his native city of Dijon. Which of the two women did he think of the most? We may never know. Either way, Eiffel was won over by the project’s relevance and bought the rights from his employees. Despite what many may think, he did not design the tower that bears his name. He was no architect – nor an artist, like his friend Bartholdi – but rather an engineer. And what an engineer! After graduating from the Ecole Centrale des Arts et Manufactures in 1855, he honed his craft in metalwork construction companies. As part of his work, he helped create railway projects and quickly proved to be a master in the architecture of iron. His first major accomplishment was the Saint-Jean Bridge in Bordeaux.
Buoyed by these first experiences, he founded his own company specialized in metal structures in Levallois-Perret on the outskirts of Paris in 1866. Combining his entrepreneurial talent with a perfect knowledge of the technical aspects of his profession, Eiffel completed one spectacular project after another. These included the Porto viaduct over the Douro River, similar structures in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) in Vietnam and in Garabit in the Cantal département of France, the Pest train station in Hungary, and the dome of the Nice Observatory. Eiffel was a tireless worker and his employees respected him. He cleverly surrounded himself with the most competent workers and treated all of his teams with the utmost consideration.
The Highlight of the Exposition Universelle
It was therefore unsurprising that the brilliant engineer won the November 1886 bid for building the highlight of the Paris Exposition Universelle three years later. The tower was a technical masterpiece and was completed in just over two years without a single casualty on the site. Standing 1,024 feet high – 1,063 after the installation of antennas on the top – it was the world’s tallest building until the Chrysler Building was erected in New York City in 1930.
But pride comes before a fall, and the rapturous applause soon faded into disgrace. Finding himself in legal turmoil after the Panama scandals, Eiffel was convicted of fraud and imprisoned for several months. Despite later being acquitted, his reputation never recovered and his career as a businessman was over. He stepped down from his company and devoted his time to scientific research in meteorology and aerodynamics, developing a passion for the fledgling aeronautic sector.
His personal life also remained a mystery. Marguerite, whom he had married in 1862, had died of tuberculosis in 1877. Claire, the oldest of their five children, played an important role alongside her father, working as his right-hand woman in his business affairs and the lady of the house. Eiffel never remarried, but was able to reunite with his former fiancée, Adrienne, in the hope of rekindling their relationship. At least, this is the hypothesis Christine Kerdellant presents in her book.
The most significant achievement remains Gustave Eiffel’s eponymous tower. The edifice was supposed to be demolished after 20 years. Yet just over 130 years after completion, it continues to overlook Paris in all its splendor. Today it welcomes more than seven million visitors every year and is more than ever an icon of the French capital.
Article published in the February 2021 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.