Category Archives: France

Tosca at Opéra Bastille

In the City of Light, the Paris Opéra, one of the world’s oldest and most distinguished companies, is divided between two locations separated by four kilometres, or a handful of Métro stops: the neo-Baroque Palais Garnier, inaugurated in 1875, and the modern Opéra Bastille, with its convex glass facade, which opened more than 100 years later in 1989 and celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.

As early as 1968, calls were being made for a new opera house in Paris to remedy the limitations of the Palais Garnier. Whether or not the City of Lights needed Opéra Bastille in addition to the Opéra Garnier is now a moot point, Opéra Bastille is here to stay, and both have found their niche without dislodging the many smaller and private theatres which also present opera.

Opéra Bastille

The prime movers in the appeal for a new opera house were composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, choreographer Maurice Béjart and actor and director Jean Vilar. Boulez in particular called for an “integrated solution”, a cité de la musique that would feature a theatre and a conservatory (since the Conservatoire de Paris was old and delapidated). Fierce debate raged as to what else should be included in such a musical city. Other buildings that could be added were homes for the contemporary music ensemble and the Orchestre de Paris (since the city lacked a modern symphonic hall). The model for these integrated ideas was, to some degree, the Lincoln Centre in New York.

Only a new opera house aroused any real enthusiasm, and in 1981 the idea found favour with the Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, and especially with the new Socialist French President, Francois Mitterrand. The location for the new opera house also had several contenders: La Villette was the early favourite, but eventually the Place de la Bastille was chosen. In 1981, it was argued that the Palais Garnier was an old-fashioned, elitist institution and that there was a need for a more progressive opéra populaire, hence the symbolic (cynics would say public-relations) selection of the Bastille site. The decision to split the opera house from the other proposed parts of the “musical city” also gained favour, even though this contravened the ideology of the initial project.

President Mitterrand announced the competition to design the new opera house in 1982; the rest of the “musical city” would be built in La Villette, although it was to become mired in political manoeuvring. Importantly it was decided that the new opera house would occupy a central place in the commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille prison on 14 July, 1789, during the French Revolution.

The Opéra Bastille Public Establishment competition received hundreds of entries. Three finalists were chosen and in November 1983, President Mitterrand selected the winner – an unknown Canadian-Uruguayan architect named Carlos Ott, who moved to Paris to oversee the project.

There are several accounts of variable accuracy of how the design was chosen; that the president pointed at the wrong model, that the jury was sure that they had chosen the design of the superstarchitect of the moment, Richard Meier. According to Georges Poisson, whose book, Les Grands Travaux des Présidents de la Ve République provides a readable and perceptive account of all the major projects built in Paris from the Centre Pompidou (1977) to the Musée du Quai Branly (2005), the jury, without much enthusiasm, presented Mitterrand with a shortlist of six projects from among the 757 entries. The president then eliminated all but two and then added a third before choosing Carlos Ott’s design over that of Christian de Portzamparc, who proposed a more radical remodelling of the Place de la Bastille, filling the entire triangle from Rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine to Rue du Lyon and thus building over Rue du Charenton.

It turns out, Richard Meier had entered the opera competition but was eliminated in the first cut, together with other architectural stars such as Charles Moore, Kisho Kurokawa and the Miami firm Arquitectonica. As designers often do, these architects had taken liberties in interpreting the competition program. The French bureaucrats who had originally promoted the idea of a modern people’s opera and who were advising the jury were having none of that. The bureaucrats had written a 423-page competition program minutely describing the new opera (including a schematic plan of the building), and they expected it to be slavishly followed. That is what Ott – and he alone – had done.

So while the jury did, according to Poisson, think that it saw the “hand of Meier” in Ott’s design, the design was exactly what the French bureaucrats asked for. In the end, the French got what their bureaucrats wanted: not the most beautiful opera house in the world, but the biggest (despite its smaller seating capacity, the Opéra Bastille complex is three times larger than the Met) and technologically the most advanced. The French have an abiding faith in new technology – which they often invent with considerable skill – and what is most innovative about the Opéra Bastille is not the architecture but the engineering. More than half of the Bastille site is taken up by enormous backstage facilities, which include not only a rehearsal hall, a mobile orchestra pit, a turntable, and a mobile stage that is also an elevator but also eleven ancillary scenery stages on two levels, joined together by an automated system of motorised trolleys. The purpose of all this space and machinery is to permit the rapid rotation of different operas: while one is being performed, another can be in rehearsal, and scenery for a third can be made ready on the lower level. It is a marvel of engineering, and despite some opening-night mishaps it all does appear to function as intended.

The stage of Le Grande Salle

Ott’s efforts to fit his building into the Place de la Bastille were surely made more challenging by the building’s blankness, its pure geometric forms, especially drums, and all the smooth gridded surfaces. So tight is the site that there is no space from which the opera house can be seen to advantage, except perhaps from the base of the column (Colonne de Juillet), were one courageous enough to brave the hazardous traffic. To make matters worse, the main facade of the Opéra is partially obscured by a small, undistinguished building housing a brasserie. At the time of construction, historians believed that a 19th century building on this site had originally been a 17th century neighbour of the Bastille prison. This turned out not to be the case, but by then the building had been torn down, so a replica, based on an old engraving, was built in its place.

The design was devised, chosen and constructed during the zenith of historicist post-modernism. Carlos Ott has described the design as “a functional project which is not essentially aesthetic.” Indeed, as much as such a thing is possible, Ott has reduced the aesthetic experience to a minimum. This is a building in which everything that is not granite is stainless steel, everything that is not white is black, and everything, absolutely everything, is obsessively arranged according to a square grid – the window mullions, the seams of the granite slabs and the stainless steel panels, the joints of the paving, even the supports of the railings. The same graph-paper motif and the same palette, if one can call it that, are continued in the interior.

The Opéra Bastille was ill-starred from the start. In 1984, for two months, Jacques Chirac, the right-wing mayor of the city of Paris, refused to grant a building permit for the left-wing president’s new opera house. In 1985, the newly appointed artistic director, Jean-Pierre Brossmann, resigned, apparently unwilling to bend to one of the exigencies of a people’s opera – fewer rehearsals and more performances. In July 1986, the building site was shut down completely for two weeks; political wrangling had broken out again between Chirac, newly elected as prime minister, and Mitterrand, and it threatened to scuttle the opera completely. In 1988, Mitterrand won a second term as president, the socialists were returned to power, and a plan to build a reduced version of the Opéra was revived – it remained to complete the building for its opening on Bastille Day, July 14, 1989, the bicentennial of the French Revolution. Then, in January 1989, the conductor Daniel Barenboim, who had been named artistic director only two years before, was abruptly fired; his programming ideas had been judged too “elitist” (Barenboim had proposed Mozart!). His dismissal caused an international stir: prominent conductors such as Herbert von Karajan, Zubin Mehta and Sir Georg Solti said that they would have to reconsider their association with the Paris Opera; Pierre Boulez, the director Patrice Chéreau, and the singer Jessye Norman (who was to sing at the inaugural) all resigned in protest. “What’s the difference between the Titanic and the Opéra Bastille?” went a Parisian joke. “The Titanic had an orchestra.”

Well, the Opéra didn’t sink, and it did acquire a new music director and conductor, albeit not a famous one: Myung-Whun Chung, a young Korean-American previously best known as the younger brother of the violinist Kyung-Wha Chung. Chung was fired himself, in 1994. In 1995, James Conlon became conductor and music director of Paris Opera, leaving in 2004, the longest of any conductor at Paris Opéra since 1939. In 2009, Philippe Jordan took on the post of music director at the Paris Opéra and amazingly he is still there, making him the longest of any music director to date. He has been appointed music director of Vienna State Opera from 2020, so Paris Opéra might find itself without a music director again, as it did in the intervening period between Philippe Jordan and James Conlon.

Back to Opéra Bastille, after the building permit was granted in 1984, the Gare de la Bastille, which had been closed since 1969, was demolished and construction began. The main theatre, known as La Grande Salle, was designed with 2,703 seats, each acoustically consistent. The seating plan, which is devoid of boxes and which allows every patron an unrestricted view of the stage, is a defiantly egalitarian riposte to Palais Garnier. However, since its opening, the acoustics have been described as disappointing. The auditorium of La Grande Salle is decorated in blue granite, pearwood and glass.

La Grande Salle, Opéra Bastille

Originally there were three additional theatres in the plan. L’Amphithéâtre is decorated in Classical Greek style with white breccia marble and seats 450, while Le Studio features white marble and pearwood, and has a capacity of 237. However, because La Salle Modulable (for baroque and contemporary works and with seating for between 600 and 1,500) was largely intended for the groups that would occupy the rest of the musical city, it was moved to that site in La Villette.

L’Amphithéâtre Bastille, at Opéra Bastille
Le Studio Bastille, at Opéra Bastille

In keeping with the ideology under which the new opera house was announced, Ott’s design had the “opaque cube” of the theatre “wrapped in gridded walls of glass”, allowing the outside world to see in. The lobbies are located immediately behind the curved glass wall and take advantage of the view in a manner common to many modern concert halls.

Foyer at Opéra Bastille
Le Foyer panoramique at Opéra Bastille

It is at night that Place de la Bastille achieves a magical quality with its spotlit column topped by a gilt Hermes, and Ott’s chief architectural conceit becomes apparent: to establish a dialogue between the building and the square by emphasising the transparency of this huge building.

Place de la Bastille

The heart of an opera house, at least for the audience, is the hall itself. The greatest constraint on the design of any performance space is its size: the greater the number of seats, the more difficult it is to achieve visual and acoustic intimacy. Some opera houses have limited their capacity to fewer than two thousand seats – Berlin’s Deutscher Oper, Milan’s La Scala and the Palais Garnier. At the other end of the scale are enormous modern halls like New York’s Metropolitan Opera, with 3,800 seats. At 2,700 seats, the Opéra Bastille steers a middle course. Although there are several tiers of loges, the layout, unlike the horseshoe-shaped Palais Garnier, is predominantly frontal, with two steep balconies.

La Grande Salle, Opéra Bastille

The Opéra Bastille has what one could call a modern sound: clear but not especially resonant. The sound appears to lack warmth, but perhaps that’s a psychological reaction to the decor. Opéra Bastille has what one would call a cool decor: the walls covered in grey granite and black wood, an undulating ceiling of white glass, and seats upholstered in black fabric. The interior of Opéra Bastille is distinctly impersonal – imperturbable and sleek in a corporate-boardroom sort of way, which perhaps reflects the architect’s previous experience managing projects for a real estate developer.

The Opéra Bastille is obviously intended to be a modern rethinking of the traditional opera house, but in turning away from la grande cuisine bourgeoise of the Palais Garnier, Carlos Ott has eschewed nouvelle cuisine and instead has provided the Parisian public with the architectural equivalent of bread and water. Moreover, because many of the details are crude and the workmanship is sloppy, the bread is not even a crusty baguette; this is American-style sliced bread!

We got to experience all this in 2007 when we attended a production of Tosca in November. During the transport strike and the unseasonably cold weather.

Puccini’s Tosca is no stranger to the stages of Paris. Alongside Mozart’s Le Nozze de Figaro and Bizet’s Carmen, Tosca has become a staple of Paris’ opera houses.

However, such popularity opens up challenges. With familiarity comes the problem of retaining freshness and novelty, how to hold the work back from crossing the line between popularity and predictability.

In May 1994, the Opéra Bastille commissioned a new staging of Tosca from director Werner Schröter, a German film director, who turned to theater and opera in Germany and abroad from the late 1980s. From 1994 to 2012, when Parisians wanted to see Tosca at Opéra Bastille , they had to be satisfied with the functional but tiresome production of Werner Schröter. A functional production for a functional theatre?

Being German, there was great efficiency in the setting in space and displacements of the sets, the clarity of the relations between the characters, the correctness of the costumes, the control of the light… The staging did not create any obstacles for the singers, possibly because there was so little of it!

The church of the first act might have been one of Piranesi’s imaginary prisons after a bombing, except for the statue of the Virgin at one side and Cavaradossi’s religious painting on the other. But the decapitated saintly head of the painting was hardly the Mary Magdalene of the libretto (a St. Catherine, perhaps?), and even less one that Floria Tosca could be jealous of.

Catherine Naglestad as Floria Tosca at Opéra Bastille in 2007

The second act, the most successful of the three, suggested a palace-prison interior, with the hint of a marble wall and the dimensions of a large salon indicated in blood-red lines. The playing area, which had only Scarpia’s huge table as furniture, was surrounded by horizontal apertures occupied by motionless guardians.

Catherine Naglestad as Floria Tosca at Opéra Bastille in 2007

The third act, an abstract top level of the Castel Sant’Angelo, didn’t have the statue of St. Michael that tops it in real life, but an image of a falling Satan or Lucifer to parallel Tosca’s leap into an interior void.

It was an abstract (and to some visionary) conception of what is one of the most realistic of operas – set in real locations in the Rome of 1800 and in the midst of real events. Schroeter strived to erase the excess of pathos of the story, and together with the abstract setting, this did not please literalists.

As described by Puccini’s biographer Mosco Carner, Tosca is a story of “sex, sadism, religion and art, a masterfully mixed dish served up on the platter of a major historical event”. Originally a French play by Victorien Sardou, Puccini was immediately inspired by the plot and sought to compose an operatic version, vastly reducing the lengthy original play as he did so. However, Puccini retained the essential ingredients: Mario Cavaradossi, a young aristocratic painter with a Republican loyalty, Tosca, a famous and religiously pious singer, as jealous as she is passionate, and Scarpia, a Roman chief of secret police hungry to satiate both his official duties and carnal desires.

Catherine Naglestad as Floria Tosca and Franck Ferrari as Scarpia at Opéra Bastille in 2007

Forming an intricate triangle of love, jealousy and deceit, Mario, Tosca and Scarpia provide a passionate tale, full of varying emotions and characters, each with their own motivations and impulses.

Schroeter’s direction of the singers, and other scenic detail, was uneven. Here too, Act 2 was the most successful, with the Tosca-Scarpia conflict carefully worked out and spectacularly culminated, with Scarpia expiring on the part of the desk not occupied by his unconsumed dinner. But much was made of Cavaradossi’s wounded hands, although Scarpia makes it clear that the painter’s head was where torture was applied. He dictates his third-act aria to an accommodating jailer, an aria that does not represent a letter but an erotic reverie. The corpse of a royalist soldier in Act 3 is never explained, and Tosca observes the execution of Cavaradossi improbably from directly behind the target.

After 11 years, what I remember most is watching an opera sung in Italian with French surtitles and concurrently translating it in my mind in two more languages. Quite a cacophony of words. Opéra Bastille has since introduced English surtitles (grudgingly I am sure!) and our next opera, Verdi’s La forza del destino should be a different experience.

Modern since 1669

This year Opéra National de Paris celebrates the 350th anniversary of its founding by Louis XIV on June 28, 1669. Embroidered above the Palais Garnier’s thick velvet curtain is the date: Anno 1669.

Modern since 1669 is the slogan chosen by the Stéphane Lissner, the Paris Opera’s director, for the anniversary program of this year.

This year’s program includes new productions of Les Troyens, the two-part epic by Berlioz that opened the Bastille Opera in 1989 (Bastille Opera is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year), along with Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Borodin’s Prince Igor, Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, a rare rendering of Scarlatti’s Il Primo Omicidio, and most importantly, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Yes, most importantly, because little bears will be attending a performance of Don Giovanni in June to cheer on beary friends! 🙂 And look how happy they are about it!

Nicole Car, soprano, and Etienne Dupuis, baritone, will play in Don Giovanni at Paris Opera

The new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni will be directed by Tony Award-winning director Ivo van Hove and will feature design work by two of van Hove’s frequent collaborators: Jan Versweyveld (sets and lighting) and An D’Huys (costumes). A co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, the opera is expected to play at the New York opera house in a future season.

Flemish stage director Ivo Van Hove won two Tony Awards for best director and best revival for his production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge.

The Académie d’Opéra (it was renamed Académie Royale de Musique in 1672, but it was better known as the Opéra) performed mainly at the Palace of Versailles and the Palais Royal in Paris. When the 1789 revolution put the royal palaces out of the music business, performances soon resumed, first in the Salle Montansier in 1794, then from 1821 at the Salle Le Peletier.

Today, France is a republic and the Académie Royale de Musique has become the Académie Nationale de Musique.

And Palais Garnier is the 13th theatre to house the Opéra National de Paris.

Puffles and Honey in front of Palais Garnier in 2014

In 1858, Napoleon III authorised Baron Haussmann, supervisor of the reconstruction of Paris, to clear 12,000 square metres of land required to build a new opera house for the company. This theatre would be in addition to the 1821 Salle Le Peletier. In 1860, the boundaries of the new building were set between the rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin, the rue Neuve-des-Mathurins and the passage Sandrie. A competition, the first of its kind in France, was announced and architects were invited to submit their proposals for the building, but they were given only one month in which to proffer their entry. Despite this short timeframe, 171 entries were received. All submissions were anonymous, identified by numbers and slogans. The winner, announced on May 29, 1861, was the unknown architect Charles Garnier. His motto was a quote from Italian poet Torquato Tasso: Bramo assai, poco spero, loosely translated “I aspire to much, I expect but little”.

Jean-Louis Charles Garnier (1825-1898)

Charles Garnier (6 No­vem­ber 1825 – 3 Au­gust 1898) was much more than one of the most audacious architects of his time; this former student of the Beaux-Arts in Paris, winner of the Grand Prix de Rome in 1848, also made his mark as a writer (he was a member of the Société des gens de lettres) and a caricaturist who specialised in portraits. His approach was based on a blending of the arts and various cultures. A great traveller, he roamed the Orient with the writer Théophile Gautier.

Garnier was twenty-three when he won the Grand Prix de Rome, a French scholarship for arts students that was established in 1663 during the reign of Louis XIV of France. Winners were awarded a bursary that allowed them to stay in Rome for three to five years at the expense of the state.

Salle Le Peletier had been constructed as a temporary theatre in 1821. Street access to that theatre was greatly constricted, and after an attempted as­sas­si­na­tion of Napoleon III at the theatre’s entrance on 14 January 1858, it was decided to build a new opera house with a separate, more secure entrance for the head of state.

Applicants were given a month to submit entries. There were two phases to the competition, and Garnier was one of 171 entrants in the first phase. He was awarded the fifth-place prize and was one of seven finalists selected for the second phase. The second phase required the contestants to revise their original projects and was more rigorous, with a 58-page program, written by the director of the Opéra, Alphonse Royer, which the contestants received on 18 April. The new submissions were sent to the jury in the middle of May, and on 29 May Garnier’s project was selected for its “rare and superior qualities in the beautiful distributions of the plans, the monumental and characteristic aspect of the facades and sections”.

Garnier was only thirty-four years old when he won the competition for the opera house and all he had built to date was an apartment house on Boulevard Sébastopol. He didn’t even have an office and had to quickly establish one on site at the opera house.

Garnier’s wife Louise later wrote that the French architect Alphonse de Gisors, who was on the jury, had commented to them that Garnier’s project was “remarkable in its simplicity, clarity, logic, grandeur, and because of the exterior dispositions which distinguish the plan in three distinct parts – the public spaces, auditorium, and stage … ‘you have greatly improved your project since the first competition; whereas Gi­nain [the first-place winner in the first phase] has ruined his’.”

Concrete foundations were laid in January 1862, but the depth of the basement meant that the site stayed wet no matter what steps were taken. Garnier installed eight steam engines that pumped continuously, 24 hours a day, from March to October, to drain the site. Still, the problem would no go away, so Garnier built a double walled foundation sealed with bitumen to keep moisture away from the opera house’s foundations, as well as a large cistern that would collect water away from the building’s foundations and act as a reservoir in case of fire. You can see this reservoir in the classic French film La Grande Vadrouille, directed by Gerard Oury. Today, Paris firefighters train here.

Because of this cistern, the idea persists that the Palais Garnier was built over a subterranean lake, a feature of Gaston Leroux’s serial Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, which was first published in book form in 1911. Garnier’s substructure for the building was complete by the end of 1862.

Napoleon III’s desire to see a model of the building as it was envisioned resulted in another remarkable development in the construction of the opera house. Sculptor Louis Villeminot created the model in 1863 at enormous cost (8,000 francs). The emperor then requested several changes to both the model and the building design, and the altered model went on display to the French public so that they could see what was being built.

One legend about Charles Garnier’s victory in the competition to design the theatre was that the Empress Eu­génie, possibly upset that her favourite candidate (the architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc) had not won, asked Garnier: “What is this? It’s not a style; it’s neither Louis XIV, nor Louis XV, nor Louis XVI.” Garnier is said to have replied: “Why Ma’am, it’s Napoleon Trois, and you complain!” Whatever the source of the phrase, this defining term has come to characterise the magnificent opulence of the building, as well as its representation of the style of the Second Empire and the Emperor who had it created: ambitious, confident, and forward-looking.

As the magnificent façade was being constructed, it was hidden from view by scaffolding, which was removed in 1867 in time for the Paris Exposition.

Façade of Palais Garnier in 1867
Palais Garnier

Above the vast Corinthian columns was an entablature with the inscription “Académie Impériale de Musique”. When Napoleon III was deposed in early September 1870, one of the first actions of the Third Republic was to change the inscription to Théâtre National de l’Opéra, so emblematic of the old regime had the theatre become. Work stopped on the theatre during the siege of Paris from September 1870 to January 1871. Garnier’s preparations were so complete and reliable, that throughout the siege the theatre was used as a warehouse to store food and as a hospital.

After France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), Garnier fell ill and left for Italy to recuperate, leaving his assistant Louis Louvet in charge. During the Paris Commune of 1871, the National Guard was quartered inside the building and charged with its defense as well as distributing the provisions housed there. The Commune wanted to replace Garnier, but in May the National Guard was driven from the building by Republican troops and the replacement architect (whose identity is not known) never took up his position. Almost as if the loss of the theatre by the Commune troops symbolised the defeat of the Commune itself, it fell within a week. Work resumed on the theatre four months later, in September 1871.

Unfortunately the whole building project and Garnier himself were associated with the Second Empire, something to which the new Republican government took a particular dislike. Garnier found securing further funding difficult, and he had to scale back the scope of the building. On October 28, 1873, that opposition disappeared when the Salle Le Peletier burned to the ground. From that moment on, work on the new theatre accelerated without interference until its completion in 1874. After finishing the opera house, Garnier retired to Italy, although he returned to France for various commissions including Jacques Offenbach’s tomb in the Montmartre Cemetery. He also designed the Opéra de Monte-Carlo.

The opening night on January 5, 1875, was a grand gala concert featuring the overtures to Daniel Auber’s La muette de Portici (1828) and Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (1829), the first two acts of Fromental Halévy’s 1835 opera La Juive (with Gabrielle Krauss in the title role), along with The Consecration of the Swords from Giacomo Meyerbeer’s 1836 opera Les Huguenots and the 1866 ballet La source with music by Léo Delibes and Ludwig Minkus. As a soprano had fallen ill, one act from Charles Gounod’s Faust (1859) and one from Ambroise Thomas’s Hamlet (1868) had to be omitted. Nevertheless, the evening was an enormous success.

Inauguration of the Paris Opera in 1875, by Édouard Detaille (1878)
Collections of the Château of Versailles

The president of the Republic, Marshal Patrice de MacMahon, was present, as well as other dignitaries including King Alfonso XII of Spain and the Lord Mayor of London, Sir William James Richmond Cotton. During the intermission Charles Garnier stepped out onto the landing of the grand staircase to receive the approving applause of the audience. He had been obliged to pay for his own seat for the gala concert, because the organisers forgot to invite the architect to the gala concert, or perhaps as some kind of anti-imperial statement.

The monumental and opulent design of the theatre is evident in almost every aspect of its architecture and decoration. Marble friezes, Classical columns, lifelike statues and bronze embellishments adorn every room in Baroque sumptuousness. One contemporary critic scathingly described the theatre as “looking like an overloaded sideboard”. while French composer Claude Debussy later expressed the opinion that the outside was reminiscent of a railway station and the interior looked like a Turkish bath. Despite these negative comments, today the Palais Garnier is regarded as a masterpiece of the Beaux Arts period of Neo-Baroque style.

The least one can say is that the opera house’s facade is an eclectic style. With arcades, columns, gilding, cupolas, and winged horses, it is pure aesthetic excess, miles away from the traditional neoclassical edifices fashionable in the second half of the 19th century. Garnier was a convinced partisan of poly-chromism, using contrasts of scale, materials and colours throughout the design. This was a heresy in a traditional monochrome Parisian setting.

Garnier made maximum use of the diamond shape plot allocated to the opera house by Haussmann. Garnier tried in vain to change the shape of the plot, but Haussmann considered the roads and the traffic flow more important. To the usual rectangular shape, Garnier added two side pavilions: one as a private entrance for season ticket holders and one as private entrance for the Emperor. The Emperor was to reach this entrance via a driveway worthy of a château. This is the only exception to the total symmetry of the building. Garnier was criticised for sacrificing the law of parallelism to courtly flattery.

Aerial view of Palais Garnier

Garnier also wanted the building’s various parts to be symbolically identified from the exterior. The pedimented top holds the stage house, the great cupola represents the audience seating, the loggia reminds us of the public foyer.

Garnier claimed only one source of inspiration: the Grand Theatre de Bordeaux by Victor Louis. As in Bordeax, the entrance to the building serves to condition the audience, welcoming them into a world of opulence. First one must pass under the arcades, then cross a low vestibule, like a kind of airlock, before discovering and inevitably being overwhelmed by the legendary grand staircase. This approach is also reminiscent of the placement of the narthex before the nave in great Romanesque churches like the Vezelay Abbey.

The Palais Garnier auditorium features the traditional Italian horseshoe shape, and is decorated in red and gold. The huge stage, the largest in Europe, can accommodate 450 performers, and the canvas house curtain was painted to represent a draped curtain with braid and tassels. Jules Eugene Lenepveu painted the ceiling which featured an immense, 7 ton, bronze chandelier designed by Garnier. The chandelier was criticised as it obscured both the view of the ceiling and the view from the fourth tier of boxes. In 1964, the original ceiling was replaced with scenes from 14 operas, painted by Marc Chagall. This new painting was installed on a removable frame that covers the original Lenepveu work. The Chagall painting has also been criticised because, according to some, it detracts from the carefully orchestrated decorations of Garnier’s design.

Palais Garnier main auditorium chandelier and ceiling painting by Marc Chagall
Palais Garnier main auditorium

The actual theatre, which occupies only a quarter of the public surface area, seats 2,000. At the time it was built, acoustics were still supervised directly by architects, who proceeded intuitively. Garnier even referred to acoustics as a “bizarre science” since some of the advice he received was seriously bizarre. In the end he decided to leave it to chance and do nothing at all specifically for good sound. By sheer damn luck, it worked out. Although during some performances, the sound can seem slightly muffled, probably due to the large amount of velvet and carpeting in the theatre. Conductors must therefore strive to obtain the maximum amount of subtlety from the orchestra.

Palais Garnier auditorium ceiling by Marc Chagall

One of Garnier’s specialties was the design of staircases, and the sweeping Grand Staircase of the Palais Garnier is almost as famous as the theatre itself. Built from various types of marble, this double staircase leads from the foyers to the different levels of the auditorium. The ceiling above the staircase is painted to represent different allegories of music, while the foyers offer lavishly decorated spaces in which audience members can mingle. The Grand Foyer, which was restored in 2004, was built to resemble a château. Its dominant decorative element is the lyre, which appears on the capitals of the columns, on grates, and even on doorknobs. Paul Baudry painted the ceiling to represent various moments in the history of music.

The foyer’s succession of mirrors evokes the famous Hall of Mirrors at the Chateaux de Versailles. Also striking are the sculpted allegories filigreed throughout the building in typical industrial revolution fashion. A second foyer, known as the dance foyer, is less well-known to the public. Garnier placed it behind the main stage to be used as an extension for scenes requiring particular depth. The dance foyer was accessible to season ticket holders only, who chose their dancers in a brothel like decor. A decor with a false air of innocence, the double arch of the ceiling hides a secret gallery for voyeurs. It was only in 1935 when this questionable practice was stopped and the season ticket holders were forbidden access. The dance foyer became what it was always meant to be, a space for dancers to practice.

Palais Garnier Grand Staircase
Palais Garnier Grand Foyer
Palais Garnier Grand Foyer ceiling

The original design called for huge quadriga statues to crown the façade. These were never completed, and were replaced with guilded bronze sculptural groups by Charles Gumery, which represent Harmony and Poetry, and were installed in 1869. Two decorative medallions with the letters “N” and “E” (representing Napoleon and Emperor) were included in the original design, but the letters were not ready when the façade was unveiled. However, these medallion letters were added in 2000 during the restoration work on the opera house.

Palais Garnier main auditorium

In addition to the main auditorium, the opera house includes several other spaces, such as a number of rehearsal rooms, salons, and a restaurant (which only opened in 2011, a lovely piece of architecture by Odile Decq, whose organic shape blends perfectly with the Napoleon III style). The Salon du Glacier has a ceiling painted by Georges Clairin depicting dancing fauns and bacchantes as well as tapestries illustrating a variety of drinks. One space that was never actually finished is the Rotonde de l’Empereur, one of the rooms Garnier had to curtail during the opposition of the early Republican government. The Rotonde de l’Empereur now houses the library-museum that records the history of the Opéra National de Paris and features permanent displays of paintings, drawings, photographs, and set models from the productions at the theatre. The unfinished dressed blocks of stone can be seen as they were left in 1870 when the work on a space intended for the Emperor himself had to be abandoned.

Little bears can hardly wait to run up and down the grand staircase and the grand foyer 🙂

Palais Garnier Grand Foyer
Palais Garnier Grand Staircase

Or to see the recently restored ceiling mosaics in the entrance foyer.

Palais Garnier l’Avant Foyer mosaic ceiling
Palais Garnier l’Avant Foyer mosaic ceiling
Palais Garnier l’Avant Foyer mosaic ceiling

And the big question is, can little bears get opera cake at the Opéra restaurant? For breakfast?

Palais Garnier l’Opéra Restaurant

Just in case the answer is ‘non’ they are having some now, while watching a documentary on the opera house.

It’s been too long since little Puffles and Honey spent a beautiful operatic evening at Palais Garnier, with Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano) and guests Yvonne Naef (mezzo soprano), Mikhail Petrenko (bass) and Ferruccio Furlanetto (bass) in a concert titled La passion du chant. It was November 2007 and we, along with everyone else in the audience, had to brave the transport strike and the cold wave to get to the theatre. There were difficulties organising the concert as well, there were no stage lights, but that created a greater intimacy for the evening of songs by Mussorgsky and Messiaen.

La saison de la galette est ouverte

As soon as the bûche de Noël disappears from French bakeries, another holiday sweet, the galette des rois takes its place.

L’Epiphanie (Epiphany), or le jour des Rois, is the feast day celebrating the newborn Christ being visited by the Magi, and since the Middles Ages, the French have fêted Twelfth Night of Christmas with the galette des rois, the King’s Cake. The traditional galette des rois is a round golden-brown puff pastry filled with delicious frangipane (almond cream), and it can contain, somewhere inside, a fève, or bean. Originally a real bean, the fève can now be anything from a plastic trinket to a tiny ceramic figure or even a gold charm.

Epiphany is derived from the Greek word ‘epiphaneia’ which means manifestations. Religiously, it means the appearance of an invisible divine being in a visible form.

The youngest person in the room gets the honour of announcing which person gets which slice of cake, and the lucky person to bite into their slice and discover la fève (and not break a tooth or choke in the process) is made king, or queen, for the day, and wears a gold paper crown. Lording over all the others, le Roi chooses a royal mate by dropping that fève into the wine glass of a beloved.

In another version of the fun and games of the galette des rois, someone (nimble) hunkers down under the table and calls out the guests’ names who are then served with a slice of the pastry. Louis XIV was reportedly particularly fond of this custom, until he wasn’t and abolished it. You can see the problem, one year someone else got the fève and became king for a day!

During the Revolution the dessert was renamed gâteau de l’égalité as playing kings and queens was frowned upon. One Frenchman is banned from partaking in the fève ritual: the president. While a massive 1.2 meter diameter galette is made up for the annual Epiphany reception at the Elysée Palace, the pastry chef is under strict instructions not to hide a fève in the cake because “it wouldn’t be appropriate to crown a king in the presidential palace”.

Emanuel and Brigitte Macron cut the galette des rois in 2018

Little bears love playing kings and queens! There is no fève game because everyone gets a present! 🙂

Life is short . . . let’s start with dessert

Cherry dessert, in Paris!

In March this year, ground zero for the patisserie world opened in Paris – Cédric Grolet’s new pastry boutique, around the corner from Le Meurice, the historic hotel where Grolet is the award-winning head pastry chef at the Michelin two-star restaurant.

Cédric Grolet was chosen as the Pâtissier of the Year 2015 by Le Chef Magazine, the Best Pastry Chef 2016 by Relais Desserts Excellence Awards, and the winner of Les Grandes Tables du Monde’s Best Restaurant Pastry Chef in 2017 (renowned French pastry legend Pierre Hermé was one of the judges).

A uniformed doorman admits customers, one by one, into the narrow, laboratory-like sanctum. There is no display case. Instead, as in a fine jewellery store, the goods are stored on trays under the counter, from whence the white-coated staff produce each order. You have to arrive early, because when they sell out, they close.

The grapefruit, which looks exactly like a ripe grapefruit, is presented in a box worthy of the jewellery stores on nearby Place Vendôme.

Grapefruit

Grolet’s desserts these days have a fruity appearance, a molten-like ganache filling and the taste of fresh fruits is enriched by a hint of vanilla. As they are not overly sweet, the dessert doesn’t leave one overwhelmed even after finishing an entire piece. Which is great, since we will have so much more than just one piece! Upon the first bite, the vivid fruity notes explode in one’s mouth, yet the filling is light enough that it quickly disappears in the mouth.

We might even diversify from cherries 🙂

Although, check out these cherry creations…

Clearly we’ll have to join the Parisians in their pastry obsession! Next June sounds like a good time, not only are cherries in season 🙂 but the pastry show is on again, June 14-17. We’re even willing to deal with the more than 25,000 visitors who attended over the three days this year. They are fellow pastry addicts!

Little bears are, of course, welcome 🙂

Little Puffles has his chef hat ready!

And doesn’t Le Dalí restaurant at Le Meurice look just like a little bear’s playground? 🙂 I wonder if they have a seven course dessert option on the menu…

The stunning interiors of Restaurant Le Dalí at Le Meurice

Isabelle has her cup ready!

Fun fact: the French phrase for guilty pleasure (péché mignon) directly translates as “cute sin” 🙂

Dom Pérignon Rosé

There is a timeless elegance about Dom Pérignon that is comforting and reassuring.

According to Richard Geoffroy, Dom Pérignon’s chef de cave since 1990, the vintages produced in the 2000s are some of the best the house has ever produced and can be placed alongside legendary vintages from the 1960s and 1920s. “In my view, it’s really in the top three decades of the last century – it’s that good,” he says.

Which is great, since we tasted the 2000 and 2003 Dom Pérignon Rosé.

The 2000 Dom Pérignon Rosé was a turning point for the house, as it represents a move towards a more ambitious, bold style that is a clear departure from the past. The 2000 is also an ideal choice for drinking today. Especially today!

The 2000 Dom Pérignon Rosé is a flashy, ripe Champagne that screams Pinot. A dark, intense colour leads to a Chambolle-like nose followed by endless sweet red berries, flowers and spices, all backed up with plenty of richness and density. The wine continues to blossom on the palate, with utterly beguiling detail, clarity and polish, all qualities that resonate on the rich, expansive finish. The 2000 Dom Pérignon Rosé is 45% Chardonnay and 55% Pinot Noir, of which 25% is still Pinot. Geoffroy says his goal was to make a statement with the 2000 Dom Pérignon Rosé; he has done that… and so much more. The 2000 signals a stylistic shift towards a more important, serious style of rosé. This is no easygoing rosé, it is a Champagne that demands serious attention. The 2000 tests the limits of what one expects from a Dom Pérignon Rosé, but the wine is simply marvellous. Anticipated maturity: 2010-2025.

The 2003 Dom Pérignon Rosé is surprisingly delicate and medium in body, with sweet exotic aromatics that linger on a finish that remains marked by a slight element of astringency. Dried flowers, crushed raspberries and sweet herbs waft from the glass in a Rosé that is all about sensuality. With time in the glass, the richness of the fruit becomes more pronounced, while the tannin from the red grapes is also noticeable. The 2003 Rosé vintage is greatly valued for its flavour as well as the conditions that produced it. The vineyard was first touched by severe spring frosts, then an unparalleled heat wave, producing a perfectly ripe and healthy but small harvest. While you can taste fruits like fig and strawberry, the primary flavour is guava and vanilla.

Only a wine that is created in the Champagne region of France, using ‘méthode Champenoise’ and matured for a minimum of 18 months can be called Champagne. Many consider Champagne as only a celebratory drink. There is a reluctance to go further than that. One must remember that champagnes like Dom Pérignon are by origin, great wines. For example, not only is Dom Pérignon perfect to be served at aperitif it is also a complex and intense wine that can be extensively paired with a meal.

Great Champagne, like a great wine is the result of precision and attention to detail. As you sip it, the Champagne offers a gradual revelation of unique sensations on the palate. If you taste viscosity and a fullness of flavours, you are most definitely drinking great Champagne. Chilling a bottle of Champagne for a couple of hours may not be enough. The best way to enjoy the full complexity of Dom Pérignon is to serve it in a still white wine glass at a temperature of 10 degrees Celsius.

Champagne loves two things in food: salt and fat! These are true foundations for a lot of the food that we really enjoy… and a sparkling wine tends not to overwhelm that because of its delicate suppleness and bubbles.

Champagne goes particularly well with cocktail-party snacks such as popcorn or truffled french fries. A dry sparkling wine will act as a good foil to salty food, and a rosé has the added quality of being “aesthetically pleasing and aromatically very beautiful”.

Dom Pérignon is very versatile when it comes to food pairing. Which is great since we paired it with the antipasti and the main course. The antipasti had plenty of salt as it is a key element to bring out the liveliness of Dom Pérignon. Dom Pérignon Rosé goes perfectly well with Wagyu beef, which was the main course! Dom Pérignon is a dry Champagne and extremely sweet dishes tend to over-power the palate. While the cherry dessert delights were not overly sweet, they still got paired with our delightfully sweet Singapore Sling 🙂

Dom Pérignon is produced by Moet & Chandon and is the house’s prestige vintage Champagne. Dom Pérignon is always a vintage Champagne, meaning that it’s not made when the harvest is what the chef de cave considers a weak year as all grapes for the vintage must be grown in the same year. It is always an assemblage of chardonnay and pinot noir (roughly half and half, although the final composition can lean as far as 60 per cent on either grape variety). When the harvest is good, the company “declares” a vintage. The first Dom Pérignon vintage was in 1921, released for sale in 1936, while the inaugural commercial release of the Rosé was in 1962. The first Rosé vintage was is 1959, but it was not commercially released and is rarely, if ever, even seen. In 1971 the Shah of Iran ordered several bottles of it for the 2500-year celebration of the Persian Empire. Since 1962, there have been twenty-eight vintages of the Rosé.

The Rosé style has evolved quite markedly since around 2000. It had been obvious for some time that Richard Geoffroy is greatly pushing the envelope of what is possible within the world of grand marque Champagne and Rosé in particular. Today, the fruit is being picked riper and there is more still Pinot Noir in the Rosé than at any time over the last five decades, which means current releases are often powerful, vinous and richly textured. Beginning in 2000, the Rosés all have more than 20% still Pinot compared to the 15-18% that was previously the norm.

Geoffroy describes Dom Pérignon as a wine of paradoxes. “Dom Pérignon is perceived as quite traditional and classic in the minds of consumers, but the reality is quite different. As opposed to the traditional, oxidative style some houses pursue, Dom Pérignon is made in a more modern, reductive style aimed at maintaining acidity and freshness.”

Elevenses Français

Joyeux quatorze juillet!

Qu’est-ce qu’on fait pour le 14 juillet?

Nous célébrons avec elevenses et des films français.

Eclair au chocolat, croissant au chocolat, croissant aux amandes, brioche, mille-feuille…

Qu’en est-il des crêpes? Sans crêpes, ce n’est pas joyeux!

Je vais te rejoinder 🙂

Le Cercle rouge… C’est un film franco-italien réalisé par Jean-Pierre Melville, sorti en 1970.

Yves Montagne, Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volontè
Le Cercle rouge

Ou on peut regarder L’Histoire de jouets en français 🙂

Vers l’infini, et au-delà!

The Eiffel Tower Story

The Exposition Universelle of 1889 was the tenth world’s fair and the fourth to be held in Paris, from 6 May to 31 October 1889. Since 1855, the French had been holding an international exposition in Paris every eleven years (more or less), each more gigantic and wondrous than the last.

In the early 1880s, it appeared that Paris might not again host an international exposition. The previous one had lost money. In spite of the constant stream of boasting in the French journals reporting on the 1878 fair, there was no getting around the stark fact that the 1867 exposition universelle – the culminating festival of the now-despised Second Empire – had produced a profit of almost three million francs, while eleven years later the Republic’s world’s fair lost more than thirty million francs.

There was a bright side to these comparisons, however. Less than seven million people had attended the 1867 fair. Over sixteen million had come to the 1878 exposition. Clearly, here was statistical proof that The People had responded more warmly to the Republic. So, despite the pundits’ predictions of financial catastrophe, the leaders of the government of France decided that the birth of the Republic should be celebrated and vindicated in 1889, the centennial year of the French Revolution. Therefore, intoned Monsieur le President Jules Grévy, be it decreed on this eighth day of November, 1884, that there shall be held, from May sixth until November sixth, 1889, the fourth exposition universelle. Antonin Proust, Minister of Instruction and Fine Arts, was appointed President of the Exposition. A distinguished group of experienced men were placed in charge of the financing, building, and arranging of the Exposition Tricolorée – so-named for the colours of the French flag adopted during the Revolution – Paris would once again be host to the world.

The 1889 exposition was to be an advertisement for the Republican system, which for 18 years had kept at bay the Royalists and Bonapartists on the right and the representatives of various socialist tendencies on the left. The philosophy in power was to be seen as humanist, philanthropic, opening its arms to all of humanity.

“We will show our sons what their fathers have accomplished in the space of a century through progress in knowledge, love of work and respect for liberty,” proclaimed Georges Berger, the fair’s general manager.

By the end of 1884 the exposition Committee had announced a contest for a spectacular centrepiece for the 1889 Paris World’s Fair: a 300 meter tower – a structure far surpassing in height any edifice ever built, that would give the entire fair a single signature structure, a striking symbol of French culture.

Eiffel Tower, 2014

It seems probable that Eiffel himself – or, more precisely, Eiffel and his collaborators – first urged the idea of a 300 meter tower as the most audacious spike for the Exposition Tricolorée.

Even before the official announcement of a competition for the design of a 300-meter tower, Eiffel’s company was at work on the plans. Two of Eiffel’s young engineers, Émile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin, and his architect, Stephen Sauvestre, created an initial design of a 300 meter iron tower, one that so pleased Eiffel he made further refinements and improvements, and began promoting it as the ideal World’s Fair monument. After all, it would rise nearly twice as high as the world’s tallest building, the recently completed 179 meters tall Washington Monument in America, thoroughly eclipsing that landmark. Eiffel purchased the exclusive rights to his colleagues’ plans. Thenceforth, the tower belonged to Eiffel. There was no question of the plan being carried forth by his subordinates, even though the idea in its first stages was undeniably their own. Only Eiffel has the financial resources, the professional reputation and the political leverage to carry the project to a successful completion.

Maurice Koechlin, Émile Nouguier, Stephen Sauvestre — original designers of the Eiffel Tower
Gustave Eiffel

From the outset, Eiffel’s plan encountered serious opposition and competition. When he presented his ideas for the 300 meter tower at the Exhibition of Decorative Arts in 1884, detractors and supporters took sides, and the debate began.

The Parisian architects had been the first to strike, outraged that a mere engineer and builder of railway bridges could imagine his iron monstrosity worthy of a central place in their illustrious city. In early February of 1885, Jules Bourdais, architect of the acclaimed Trocadéro Palace, had begun promoting his plan: a one-thousand-foot-tall Sun Column, a classical granite tower of elegant loggias enclosing a hollow centre. Rising up from a proposed six-story museum of electricity, the Bourdais Column would be topped not only by a gigantic searchlight (combined with parabolic mirrors) that would illumine the city, but by a statue of Scientia, or Knowledge. When questioned, Bourdais declined to consider that his design was an engineering impossibility, far too heavy for its foundation, and unlikely to survive strong winds. Instead, he challenged Eiffel to show how elevators could go up and down inside his tower’s curved legs. Now that, Bourdais countered, was the real impossibility!

For a year the architects quietly attacked Eiffel behind the scenes, certain they could persuade the government to choose Bourdais’s Sun Column. But the fair’s commissioner Lockroy, also the minister of trade in the republican administration, was clearly enamoured of Eiffel’s tower, and Lockroy — a swashbuckling classicist and freethinker, a veteran of Garibaldi’s anti-royalist campaign in Sicily, and a man who relished drama — was not easily swayed. He was firmly committed to seeing built a “monument unique in the world… one of the most interesting curiosities of the capital”. And so, on May 1, 1886, Paul Planat, founder and editor of the architectural journal La construction moderne, went noisily public, launching the first of many jeremiads against Eiffel’s tower, denouncing it as “an inartistic… scaffolding of crossbars and angled iron” and excoriating above all its “hideously unfinished” look.

In truth, no project had yet been officially selected, and the very next day Lockroy formally invited all who wished to compete for the great honour of constructing the World’s Fair tower to submit proposals by May 18, 1886. Though Lockroy suggested that the design be for an iron tower of 300 meters, many among the 107 entrants ignored that guideline. One entrant envisioned a gigantic water sprinkler, in case drought struck Paris. Another featured a tall tower built not of iron but of wood and brick. Perhaps the most historically minded design was the gigantic guillotine, so evocative of the very event being unofficially celebrated, the fall of the Bastille. Was it possible, Planat wondered in print, even as the winner was to be announced, that Monsieur Lockroy, reputedly “a man of taste,” might still acknowledge the error of his ways and realize that “there could be no honour in erecting [Eiffel’s] monstrosity… [or] leaving as his legacy this scaffolding”?

By now, others had joined the campaign against Eiffel, asserting that the actual construction of a safe 300 meter tower was technically impossible, as no building that tall could resist the power of the wind. Moreover, how would Eiffel find men willing or even able to work at such vertiginous heights? And what of the danger to those who would come as visitors to ascend such a structure? Of course, Eiffel knew that these naysayers probably understood nothing of his vast experience, the more than fifty wrought-iron railroad bridges he had built in France alone. Erecting those structures had made him thoroughly confident that his mathematical formula for shaping wrought iron would hold up to the worst possible winds. As for the labour question, his workers who had built the bridge at Garabit were already habituated to working 122 meters above the ground. And once the tower was up, he had no doubt it would be perfectly safe. He did not bother to dignify with a reply the strange assertion that such a huge iron tower would become a dangerous magnet, drawing the nails from surrounding Parisian buildings.

Then came an entirely new line of attack, slithering out of that most poisonous undercurrent of French life: anti-Semitism. In June a hateful screed titled The Jewish Question charged that Eiffel, through his German ancestors, was “nothing more nor less than a German Jew.” An entire chapter scourged L’Exposition des Juifs and denounced the proposed Eiffel Tower as “une tour juive”. It was a sad commentary that Eiffel even felt obliged to respond, as he did in the republican paper Le Temps, stating, “I am neither Jewish nor German. I was born in France in Dijon of French Catholic parents.”

On June 12, 1886, Gustave Eiffel was delighted to learn he had won the coveted commission to build the fair’s centrepiece. Despite the campaigns of Eiffel’s opponents, Commissioner Lockroy (to no one’s surprise) had selected Eiffel’s Tour en Fer de Trois Cents Mètres, having deemed the other projects either unworkable or — in the case of the gigantic replica of a guillotine — simply impolitic. Eiffel’s tower was praised as having “a distinctive character… [being] an original masterpiece of work in metal”. Ultimately, Eiffel would be building a potent symbol of French modern industrial might, a towering edifice that would exalt science and technology, assert France’s superiority over its rivals (especially America), and entice millions to visit Paris for the fair to ascend the tower’s unprecedented heights. After all, American and British engineers had likewise dreamed of building a wonderfully tall tower, but they had not been able to figure out the means to do so. Eiffel, the Frenchman, through his years of erecting gigantic and beautiful arched railroad bridges, had solved the mystery, and being thoroughly Gallic, he intended to build with elegance and artistry.

After experiencing the joy of winning the commission, Eiffel entered another painful phase when he estimated the cost of erecting the tower at five million francs, or $1 million. The government, which had originally talked about underwriting that whole sum, now backpedalled, offering not quite a third, or 1.5 million francs, leaving Eiffel to raise personally the remaining millions needed to build the tower. To attract investors, he would be allowed to keep the tower up for twenty years and was assured of all profits from entry fees and restaurant concessions for the whole of that period. But after this agreement was reached, weeks and then months passed with no action and no contract. Eiffel began to worry about ever getting started with the project, much less finished.

Next, further debates arose about where best to locate the Eiffel Tower. In the end, Eiffel once again prevailed. His tower would stand on the Champ de Mars, with the rest of the fair.

After dark, the tower was lit by hundreds of gas lamps, and a beacon sent out three beams of red, white and blue light. Two searchlights mounted on a circular rail were used to illuminate various buildings of the exposition. 1889.

However, when the military discovered that their training ground on the Champ de Mars would be forfeited to the Eiffel Tower not just for the duration of the fair but for twenty years, it successfully agitated to relocate the tower much closer to the river. In September Eiffel was working in his office when he learned that he now was to build his tower so close to the Seine that two of the foundations for the legs would require far more complicated compressed-air construction techniques. “These foundations,” he would later complain to Lockroy, “are far more onerous for me than those previously agreed to on the Champ de Mars.”

As the New Year neared, he decided to gamble his personal fortune for the glory of seeing his 300 meter tower rise over Paris. He agreed to indemnify the state for any possible consequence of the tower’s collapsing, hiring top lawyers to ensure the best possible solution and he would raise all the financing beyond the state’s 1.5 million francs as previously discussed. This bold stroke ended the logjam, and on January 7, 1887, he and the French and Parisian governments finally signed off on the long-stalled contract. The contract required Eiffel to use only French labour, materials, and technology and to submit to oversight by an exposition committee. Three weeks later, on January 28, during a winter so severe that Parisians were ice-skating on lakes in the Bois de Boulogne, Eiffel broke ground at the Champ de Mars. At last, the foundations for the tower were begun.

Foundations of the Eiffel Tower

As Eiffel would confess later in a lecture, he felt tremendous “satisfaction” that morning as “I watched an army of diggers start on those great excavations that were to hold the four feet of this Tower that had been a subject of constant concern for me for more than two years. I also felt that, notwithstanding the severe attacks directed against the Tower, public opinion was on my side, and that a host of unknown friends were preparing to welcome this daring attempt as it rose out of the ground.”

One of the stone and cement foundations for the tower’s legs. April, 1887

The Eiffel Tower was situated to serve as a triumphant towering archway into the fairgrounds from the Pont d’Iéna, and each of its four gigantic feet marked one of the cardinal points of the compass. The east and south feet would stand firmly on deeply excavated grey plastic clay soil undergirded by a solid foundation of chalk. The north and west feet, being closer to the river, presented a more complex situation, requiring compressed-air excavation via sunken caissons. Every morning, through the snows and freezing weather of that harsh winter, great teams of labourers turned out to excavate the four gigantic foundations, with the blue-suited workmen tossing the dirt and rocky debris into large-wheeled wooden wagons to be carted away by horses.

Equipping the tower with adequate and safe passenger lifts was a major concern of the government commission overseeing the Exposition

As Eiffel and his work crews got busy, and the tower began to look like a reality, the influential L’Illustration continued to mock it as little better than “a lighthouse, a nail, a chandelier… it would never have been allowed but for politicians who have the idea it’s a ‘symbol of industrial civilization.’” Horrified at the scale of what they saw taking place, the tower’s enemies mobilized for a last-ditch effort to stop the hated “scaffolding.”

On February 14, not three weeks into the digging of the foundations, forty-seven of France’s most famous and powerful artists and intellectuals signed their names to an angry protest letter addressed to Paris official Adolphe Alphand, Baron Haussmann’s right-hand man and principal organizer of this and the past two World Fairs. The letter, published in Le Temps, vehemently lamented the soulless vulgarity of such an industrial behemoth, this “dizzily ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a black and gigantic factory chimney, crushing [all] beneath its barbarous mass.”

Among the signatories were France’s most hallowed names — the greatest painters of the age, Ernest Meissonier and Adolphe William Bouguereau; the celebrated writers Guy de Maupassant and Alexandre Dumas fils; poet François Coppée; composer Charles Gounod; architect Charles Garnier; and dozens of other important Parisians — with all insisting fervently: “For the Eiffel Tower, which even commercial America would not have, is without a doubt the dishonour of Paris. Everyone feels it, everyone says it, everyone is profoundly saddened by it, and we are only a weak echo of public opinion so legitimately alarmed. When foreigners visit our Exposition they will cry out in astonishment, ‘Is it this horror that the French have created to give us an idea of their vaunted taste?… And for the next twenty years we will see cast over the entire city, still trembling with the genius of so many centuries, cast like a spot of ink, the odious shadow of the odious column of bolted metal.”

Lockroy and Eiffel had suffered through so many anti-tower attacks that this latest rarefied blast served only as a high-profile opportunity to take the offensive. Interviewed at his giant noisy workshop in the suburb of Levallois-Perret, Eiffel sounded positively sanguine in his creation’s defence: “I believe that the tower will have its own beauty. The first principle of architectural beauty is that the essential lines of a construction be determined by a perfect appropriateness to its use. What was the main obstacle I had to overcome in designing the tower? Its resistance to wind. And I submit that the curves of its four piers as produced by our calculations, rising from an enormous base and narrowing toward the top, will give a great impression of strength and beauty.”

Eiffel instructed those clinging to the past that there was ample patriotic glory in the “tallest edifice ever raised by man… there is an attraction and a charm inherent in the colossal… It seems to me that this Eiffel Tower is worthy of being treated with respect, if only because it will show that we are not simply an amusing people, but also the country of engineers and builders who are called upon all over the world to construct bridges, viaducts, train stations and the great monuments of modern industry.”

With his tower finally launched, and the work site busy with daily progress, Eiffel could even afford to be merely amused for the readers of Le Temps at the artistic establishment’s attack: “They begin by declaring that my tower is not French. It is big enough and clumsy enough for the English or Americans, but it is not our style, they say. We are occupied more with little artistic bibelots… Why should we not show the world what we can do in the way of great engineering projects… Paris is to have the greatest tower in the world, after all… In fact, the tower will be the chief attraction of the Exhibition.”

Completion of the first level, March 20, 1888

On March 26, 1888, Eiffel and his engineers measured the completed first platform. It was perfectly horizontal. He would later write, “Joined by a belt of girders, the piers formed a solid table with a wide base. The sight of it alone was enough to brush aside any fears of its overturning. We no longer had to worry about a major accident, and any minor ones that might occur now could not compromise completion of the structure.”

June 16th, 1888: Photo of the first level, Gustave Eiffel in the center with right hand on cane

Little bears on the first platform 🙂

Miniland at Legoland Windsor

Eiffel’s two years of planning were paying off. “Each piece [of the tower] had to be designed separately, taking into account the variable inclination of columns and braces along every foot of the tower’s height. In addition, every rivet hole had to be drawn in at precisely the right spot, so that all the on-site workers would have to do was to place one-third of 2.5 million rivets, the rest being placed at the shops in advance… all calculations had to be accurate to one-tenth of a millimetre.”

No drilling or shaping was done on site: if any part did not fit, it was sent back to the factory for alteration

As soon as Eiffel had his all-important first platform balanced, he opened a canteen there to serve food and save his men the time and trouble of clambering up and down for coffee or a meal. Now on lovely spring days at noon his men had their lunch up in the open air and breezes. Here, “a chunk of coarse bread serves as the pièce de résistance to a toothsome bit of boiled meat, or a spoonful of mutton gravy, or an artichoke, or a trifle of chicory salad.” This system also enabled Eiffel to make sure that no worker drank too much wine, thus becoming a danger to himself and others. Pay increased along with the height of the tower, ranging from eight cents an hour for unskilled labour to fourteen cents an hour for most skilled. The construction pace was relentless.

Start of construction on the second stage. May, 1888

Gustave Eiffel was pleased with the tower’s rapid progress, and by July 4, 1888, was ready to welcome and woo eighty of Paris’s most influential journalists at a summer banquet to be served on the tower’s first platform. Eiffel, in a formal frock coat suit and best silk top hat, awaited his guests at the base. Almost to a man, the writers whose words informed France on politics, science, letters and art appeared for their fête-in-the-sky wearing similar outfits. They set off up the stairs amid much chattering, exclamations over the gigantic girders creating the latticework, and high spirits at being among the first to ascend the tower. Long trestle tables had been laid out for their meal, 70 meters up in the sky. High above their heads, the press could see and hear workmen riveting together the half-finished second platform. In recent weeks, the Eiffel Tower had become the tallest structure in Paris, rising above the towers of Notre Dame, at 66 meters, the Pantheon, at 79 meters, and the dome of Les Invalides, heretofore the city’s highest monument at 105 meters.

The tower in July 1888

From the first platform, the journalists gazed upon a city very different from the Paris where the Bastille had been stormed ninety-nine years earlier. From 1853 to 1870, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte III and Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann had dramatically remade the French capital, creating a modern monumental urban centre arranged around new thoroughfares, squares, boulevards, theatres, and railroad stations. Haussmann’s bold vision included clearing space around public monuments, establishing elegant small public gardens, and opening up and landscaping the large parks, with all the greenery and colour serving to freshen and redefine the city. As part of its makeover, Paris had been subdivided into twenty arrondissements, each with its own town hall, schools, improved sanitation, and central food market. The boulevards were widened and planted with trees, equipped with wide asphalt pedestrian sidewalks, and lined with monumental buildings. The new life generated by the Haussmannian city could be seen everywhere, all along the open streets and boulevards. The city’s population had by now doubled, to more than two million. The journalists there that day savoured being among the very first to see Paris from such a height.

By mid-July, Eiffel’s men had completed the second platform, at a height of 118 meters. On July 14, Bastille Day, to celebrate his steady progress, Eiffel set off a fantastic fireworks display from the new apex. All around and above the tower, the night sky burst into exploding lights of many brilliant hues and shapes, all cascading down from the heavens.

The Vicomte de Vogüé, a regular observer in his daily constitutional along the Seine, marvelled at it all: “After the second platform, the slender column rose rapidly into space. Yet, you could not really see the construction work. The autumn fogs often hid the aerial work-place; though in the twilight of late-winter afternoons, you could see the red fires of the forges up in the sky and hear the hammers hitting the iron fittings. This was what was so striking — you almost never saw the workers on the tower; the tower appeared to grow all by itself, as if by the spell of a genie. The great works of ancient times, like the pyramids for example, are linked in our minds with the idea of great multitudes, weighing down on the levers and struggling with huge ropes; this modern pyramid was being raised up by the power of calculations requiring a very few number of hands, for today the necessary force for construction rests in a thought.”

As the tower achieved its final shape, its early critics were grudgingly coming around and conceding its comeliness. “As soon as it was possible to judge the monument as a whole, hostile opinion began to relent,” wrote the Vicomte de Vogüé, whose constitutionals along the Seine had literally led him to new heights: he had received special permission from Eiffel to wander about the tower’s upper reaches while it was still being built. “There was in this iron mountain the elements of a new beauty, elements difficult to define, because no grammar of art had as yet supplied the formula, but evident to the most biased art critics. People admired its combination of lightness with power, the daring centring of the great arches, and the erect curves of the principal rafters, which… leap towards the clouds in a single bound. What [people] admired above all was the visible logic of this structure… logic translated into something visible… an abstract and algebraic beauty… Lastly, the spectators were won over by what inevitably conquers everyone: a tenacious will, embodied in the success of a difficult undertaking. Only the top was still criticized, was adjudged unfinished, a weak and complicated crown that did not hold with the very simple lines. Something was missing at the top.”

Construction of the upper stage. December, 1888

Others particularly liked the top of the tower, whose summit ended in a rounded campanile. When visitors alighted at the very top from the elevator, they would step into a covered gallery. Fitted all round with glazed sashes that could be opened or shut as required, this penultimate gallery would be sixteen meters long on each side, and accommodate eight hundred visitors. Above this public gallery, Eiffel planned a series of rooms reserved for scientific purposes, and what would be the envy of many in coming months: an elegant personal apartment.

While the aesthetes had been finding fault with the tower, the makers of bibelots were cashing in. Happily exploiting the world’s fascination with this unique structure, they manufactured endless likenesses of it. There were images executed in “pen, pencil, and brush, in photo and lithography, in oil and pastel, on paper, canvas, on wood and ivory, on china, steel, and zinc,” not to mention Eiffel Towers replicated “on handkerchiefs and caps; it was eaten in chocolate and marchpane; formed into cigar cases and hand bells, inkstands and candlesticks; it dangled from the gentlemen’s watch chains and was fastened in the ladies ears; it stood in hundreds of forms in the shop-windows, and made all idle hands busy in the workshops.”

Disney Store on Avenue des Champs-Élysées, 2014

The Eiffel Tower mania knew no bounds. Everything was à la tour Eiffel, from toilet tables and clocks to snuff-boxes, umbrella handles, scarf pins, and sleeve buttons. They were made to suit all prices and all tastes; they were sold on the street corners under magnifying glass for two sous, and they were built in the provinces fifteen meters high, and containing little private dining-rooms just as it stood at the foot of Iéna bridge, and everywhere on the globe the portrait of the giant was to be seen.

Little bears took their Lego Eiffel Tower to visit the big Eiffel Tower 🙂

Eiffel Tower, 2014
Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, left, explores the completed tower with a friend.

Gustave Eiffel was understandably rhapsodic over the nearing completion of the tower and its embrace by the masses. He basked in the rising chorus of admiration and excitement, the contrition of many of his early detractors, and the hosannas of praise. The Revue Illustrée, which had featured him on its cover, had lauded this giant of engineering for combining “the practicality and methodical sang-froid of the English engineer, the audacity of the American engineer, and the theoretical science and taste of the French engineer.” Even The Times of London offered a mea culpa: “The form suggested the ugliest parts of a suspension bridge, and it was predicted that the deformity would be increased with the increase of size. The result has not been what was predicted. Even some of those who protested most loudly against the proposal now admit that the effect of the structure is not what they anticipated. They acknowledge that it has a light and graceful appearance, in spite of its gigantic size, and that it is an imposing monument, not unworthy of Paris.”

On Sunday, March 31, 1889, the tower’s overall structure was completed. The pinnacle achieved a final height of 300 meters. With the addition of the flagpole, the tower reached 1,000 feet. After five difficult years, starting from the moment Eiffel first admired the initial idea for a Tour en fer de trois cents mètres, it had been a relentless push to get construction under way and completed on time. Gustave Eiffel and his men had, as promised, finished in twenty-two months, in time for the fair.

The day after the tower was finished, on the brisk, windy afternoon of Monday, April 1, 1889, Gustave Eiffel triumphantly welcomed to the Champ de Mars select members of the Paris press, along with his champion, fair commissioner Édouard Lockroy; French prime minister Pierre Tirard, a civil engineer by training and an early critic; the Paris Municipal Council; various high officials; and curious wives and children. The occasion was the formal first ascension of the tower, followed by a champagne fête for Eiffel’s men. At 1:30 p.m., 150 guests and all of Eiffel’s 199 workers had gathered at the north pillar stairs, while not far off, fair construction workers toiled away, racing to complete the vast, elaborate exposition buildings, gardens, and fountains.

Eiffel once again would lead the walk up the tower’s iron staircase, for even the simplest of the tower’s elevators, the Roux railway-like cars to the first floor, were not yet ready. It was still not at all clear if any of the elevators would be ready in time for the opening of the exposition.

As Eiffel waited to lead his guests, a politician who suffered from acute vertigo used a scarf to blindfold himself, and then clutched his colleague’s arm as they started upward. The group was lively and excited. The sun came in and out of the clouds racing across the sky, and at times the March wind gusted violently, whirling dust from below. Eiffel stopped not infrequently to explain this or that feature and to let the sightseers look down at the fair or up the Seine. When the party of one hundred arrived at the first platform, Eiffel indicated where the four eateries would be—an Anglo-American bar, a Flemish brasserie, and then a Russian and a French restaurant, each with five or six hundred seats. Most of the ladies in their spring silk dresses and the top-hatted gentlemen chose to go no farther.

Panorama of the Champ-de-Mars
This view from the first level of the Eiffel Tower shows the Dôme Central and Palais des Industries Diverses, center; the Galerie Rapp, left; and Galerie Desaix, right. Behind the Palais des Industries Diverses is the Palais des Machines (also referred to as the Galerie des Machines). In front of the Dôme Central is the Fontaine Monumentale.

But forty of the more intrepid followed Eiffel up the circular staircase to the second platform, more than a third of the way to the top. From this vantage point, these lifelong Parisians were delighted by the new panorama of their beloved city. The Seine had become a silver ribbon undulating through a miniature landscape. Most of them had never seen Paris from such a height. It was an exhilarating but somehow chastening sight. After their exertions and, for many, incipient vertigo, half of the group declined to ascend any higher.

Only Gustave Eiffel and two dozen others, including his son-in-law, Salles, Lockroy, Gaston Tissandier, the aerialist editor of La Nature, a few officials, and all the journalists, persevered for the final half-hour climb to the top observation deck. From this lofty new perch, Le Figaro’s reporter discovered that the human landscape and enterprise were reduced to disquieting inconsequence: “Mounts Valérien, Montmartre, Sannois, all look like little grey blobs; the forest of Saint-Germain fades into the blue mists, the Seine becomes a tranquil rivulet, traversed by Lilliputian barges, and Paris appears like a tiny stage set with its straight roads, squares rooftops, and orderly facades. The tiny black dots are the crowds. Everything everywhere looks devoid of life, except for the green of the Bois; there is no visible movement in this immensity; no noise to show the life of the people who are ‘below.’ One would say that a sudden slumber has, in broad daylight, rendered the city inert and silent.”

Gustave Eiffel now also announced the installation of a plaque on the tower with the names of 199 of his workmen to honour their hard and faithful labour. While there had been the strikes, he as well as anyone appreciated the sheer physical effort, the terrible cold, the relentless pace, and the necessary precision and care involved in assembling this 7,300-ton structure. The tower had, regrettably, taken two lives: a worker who died in a fall while not on shift, and another hurt in an accident who then died of gangrene.

Because of Eiffel’s safety precautions, including the use of movable stagings, guard-rails and screens, only one person died during construction

The elevators for the tower turned out to be a very complex and intricate problem for the time. As no one had ever erected a tower of 300 meters, no one had any experience with building elevators to reach such heights. If the crowds could not ascend safely and swiftly up the Eiffel Tower, what sort of attraction would it be?

The fair commission supervising the tower’s construction together with Eiffel had early on jointly retained an engineer named Backmann to design the tower’s elevators. “The curvature of the Tower’s legs imposed a problem unique in elevator design, and it caused great annoyance to Eiffel, the Fair’s Commission, and all others concerned,” wrote technology historian Robert M. Vogel. “The problem of reaching the first platform was not serious. The legs were wide enough and their curvature so slight in this lower portion as to permit them to contain a straight run of track… Two elevators to operate only that far were contracted for with no difficulty — one to be placed in the east leg and one in the west.”

The truly perplexing issue was how to safely and swiftly transport passengers the 115 meters up from the ground to the second platform (the north leg) and also from the first platform to the second (the south leg). These two elevators would have to negotiate the tower’s most pronounced curvature, an unprecedented challenge in an era when elevators ran not on electric motors, but by hydraulic or water pressure. Then, to reach the top of the tower, passengers on the second platform would have to take yet another elevator and ascend in two stages, making a quick transfer halfway up.

Monsieur Backmann chose to address himself only to designing the elevator for the ascent from the second platform to the very top, leaving the commission to seek bids elsewhere for the four elevators leading to the first and then second floors. The commission had ruled that any elevator installed in the Eiffel Tower would have to be absolutely safe, reasonably swift, and of French manufacture. The first-floor contract, a simple enough matter, was awarded to Roux, Combaluzier et Lepape, who would install a clunky articulated chain-link device that would move the cars up and down with a notable but stolid clatter.

But when the commission solicited bids for the second-floor elevators, only the Paris branch of the American Otis Brothers and Company responded. The company prided itself on its global preeminence, as Charles Otis told shareholders not long afterward: “[We] have shipped our products to almost every civilized country of the globe. We have opened a large acquaintance and trade with Australia… Our London connection is promising well… notwithstanding the well known prejudice of the English people against American products… Our business along the Pacific Slope has also been satisfactory. We have during the past year shipped elevators to China and South America.”

But Otis, however global its reach, was not a French firm, and so the commission briskly rejected its interest as an impertinence, and issued another call for bids. Again no French firms came forward. By then, the summer of 1887, Eiffel was six months into his labours, and some firm would soon have to begin elevator work on what was the most difficult section of the tower. The commission reluctantly waived its own rules for French suppliers only and in July awarded the $22,500 contract to Otis.

W. Frank Hall, the Otis representative in Paris, gloried in the challenge: “Yes, this is the first elevator of its kind. Our people for thirty-eight years have been doing this work, and have constructed thousands of elevators vertically, and many on an incline, but never one to strike a radius of 49 meters for a distance of over 15 meters. It has required a great amount of preparatory study.” It soon emerged that the Otis Company had been studying the matter ever since Eiffel won Lockroy’s contest. “Quite so,” said Hall, “we knew that, although the French authorities were very reluctant to give away this piece of work, they would be bound to come to us, and so we were preparing for them.” After all, Otis Brothers had just installed the elevator in what had been the world’s tallest structure up until then, the Washington Monument. Little did the ebullient Hall of Otis or Eiffel dream of the dire troubles and conflicts ahead.

The Otis Company proposed a design of double-decked elevators that, because of the unusual incline, would operate on regular rail sections. The motive power was to be the usual hydraulic cylinder sunk in the ground and moved by water pressure. Steam engines would pump Seine river water up to a large reservoir on the second platform. When that reservoir’s water began to flow back to the ground, it would power the cylinders, activating a block and tackle that would enable the counterweighted elevators to go up and down, as controlled by the elevator operator. When Hall had first presented the Otis plans, Eiffel and the commission felt uncomfortable with the fact that the elevators would be pulled by cables from the top, rather than pushed from the bottom, as was the European system. The method simply seemed less safe, when safety was paramount.

The fair commissioners and all Paris still remembered with a shudder the Baroness de Schack’s dreadful death a decade earlier, when the ascending elevator in the Grand Hôtel malfunctioned, plummeting like a stone from the top floor to the basement. Eiffel accordingly demanded “a device that permitted the car to be lowered by hand, even after failure of all the hoisting cables,” and when Hall balked at this feature, Eiffel then insisted that the Otis Company’s chief engineer, Thomas E. Brown, Jr., come over from the United States to confer with him.

Safety, speed, and quality were characteristics on which Otis Brothers and Company of New York prided itself, but above all, safety. If an Otis elevator’s hoisting cables broke or stretched out, powerful leaf springs were released, causing the brake shoes to grip the rails, thus bringing the falling car to a gradual halt. All who followed the history of elevators could cite the famous moment in 1854 when firm founder Elisha G. Otis dramatically demonstrated “the perfect safety of his elevator by cutting the hoisting rope of a suspended platform on which he himself stood.” As the platform came to a gentle stop, Mr. Otis declared to his astonished audience, “All safe, gentlemen!” But almost four decades of established Otis safety were not sufficiently reassuring for Eiffel and the commission.

After months of protracted meetings, the Otis officials informed Eiffel that if he and the commission insisted on dictating the design of the elevators, they would withdraw from the contract. The French finally backed down.

In the meantime, Eiffel had decided once again to modify slightly the tower’s legs, which of course meant further alterations to the elevator designs. About this same time, Eiffel and the commission, examining their man Backmann’s second effort to design an elevator serving the top, realized he was no connoisseur of elevators. In mid 1888, they rejected his plans, which included the worrisome novelty of an electric motor, and fired him.

Elevator system of the Eiffel Tower, 1889

With just one year until the fair and Backmann dismissed, Eiffel had to find another provider for the elevator to the top. The problem, in this age before electric motors were the norm, was the sheer footage to be ascended: 160 meters. Eiffel turned to an old classmate, Léon Édoux, an elevator inventor and magnate who had installed a very successful 70 meter elevator in the Trocadéro Palace across the Seine. Édoux came up with “an ingenious modification… The run was divided into two equal sections, each of 80 meters, and two cars were used.” When one was going up to the interim platform where you changed for the final ride to the top, the other was coming down, and so no other weights were needed than the cars themselves. “When these two elevators were in operation, water was admitted to the two cylinders [that provided power] from a tank on the third platform. The resultant hydraulic head was sufficient to force out the rams and raise the upper car.”

At the Eiffel Tower, meanwhile, matters were not proceeding smoothly with Otis. As the months ticked by in the second half of 1888, every structural adjustment in the interior of the tower’s legs required the Otis Company to make its own elevator design accommodations. Moreover, all the extra work had forced Otis to revise the price of the two elevators upward to $30,000, a 30 percent surcharge. Even the new higher price did not reflect the true cost of the complicated elevators. The Otis Company now expected to lose $20,000 on the contract. Finally, Otis informed Eiffel that because of the constant changes the firm could no longer guarantee full operation of the two elevators by the contract deadline of January 1, 1889. However, Otis did assure Eiffel that all would be running smoothly by May 1 when the fair opened.

That wasn’t to be. Since the lifts had not been completed when the Exposition opened, the first visitors had to walk up to the second floor platform. Workers had worked through the night the day before the exhibition opened to complete the necessary construction needed to safely allow patrons to set foot upon the structure. When speaking of the dedicated workers, M. Salles, the son-in-law of Eiffel made the statement that “no soldier on the battle field deserved better mention than these humble toilers, who, will never go down in history.” No one other than construction personnel were allowed higher than the second floor platform.

It was a month later, in June, when Gustave Eiffel had the immense satisfaction of finally watching the public debark from the completed elevators. The event was front-page news in the Paris Herald, whose man reported on his own journey: “From the second floor runs a large car, holding sixty people… [The elevator] is simply a square box, with the upper part of two sides glazed… In two minutes and a half, the car arrives at a platform, which may be called floor number two and a half… Here the guard calls out ‘All change here,’ and the passengers walk across a narrow bridge into a similar elevator which takes them as high as they are allowed to go. ‘Mind the step as you go out, ladies,’ says the thoughtful guard. Everybody, of course, looks at the step, and between a rather dangerously wide crack in the boards, sees the grounds of the Exhibition gardens, two hundred and seventy-five metres below… The sensation upon going up can scarcely be described as pleasant, especially as from time to time the elevator gives strange little jerks.”

The Otis Elevator at work in the Eiffel Tower

The reporter from Pulitzer’s New York World patriotically lauded the Otis lifts and their “great triumph of American skill” before describing how “975 feet above the world people become pigmies… At this height the Arc de Triomphe has become a little toy and the churches are like those in the Dutch boxes of villages. It was all map-like and indefinite; the people were crawling ants; all that looked large had disappeared, excepting a balloon, which was our contemporary.”

Other visitors had to contend with their newly discovered fear of heights, such as an Englishman from Manchester who said: “Though the hand rail is high enough, still there are thoughts of going over which are anything but pleasant. However, perseverance is repaid when one steps out on the top platform… there is no comparison between 1,000 feet of mountain and 1,000 feet of Eiffel. The absence of any ground falling away from one’s feet, or of any surrounding mountains, gives us a sense of isolation and unnaturalness new to any but a balloonist or steeplejack. It takes a few moments before one can muster nerve to walk on the edge of the platform and look over. You must have a strong head to do that… [I]t takes some time before one can realize that the winding rivulet is the silver Seine… The only distinguishable moving objects are small clouds of white smoke traveling slowly along—the railways… Above all, an almighty silence, which is most oppressive.”

The tower’s sheer enormity and complexity, its many levels, the constantly moving elevators, the excited crowds, the delicious smells wafting from the crowded restaurants, the many little souvenir and snack stalls, the busy editing and publishing of Le Figaro, all combined to create an atmosphere of exhilaration. Eiffel was gratified to see how people wished to experience his tower, to be part of something so new, so gargantuan, so modern, which he viewed as an affirmation of technology, of progress.

Republican France had invited every nation of the world to its fête. The great European powers responded with hostility, for while the republican government might insist its fair was celebrating liberty, science, and technology, Europe’s monarchs viewed it as a celebration of the downfall and beheading of kings and queens. Lord Salisbury, speaking for Great Britain, protested the very idea of the French celebration. The Russian czar bluntly denounced the French revolution “as an abomination”. Germany dismissed universal exhibitions as “ ‘out of date. Their inconveniences are not balanced by their advantages.’ Austria used as a pretext the Parisian manifestations in favour of Hungary. Italy said: ‘The expense is greater than we could bear.’ ” Spain had declined, as had Belgium, Holland, Sweden, and Romania. Turkey, like Italy, had pleaded poverty. Only the Central and South American nations had enthusiastically RSVP’d, as had Japan. The French republicans dismissed the royal whiners, confident that the fair would showcase France’s role “as educator, benefactor, and distributor of light and bread”.

So it was very gratifying to the French when Queen Victoria’s son and heir, Arthur Edward, Prince of Wales, his wife, Alexandra, the Princess of Wales, and their five adult children came to Paris “privately” to tour the World’s Fair officially snubbed by his own government. All Paris knew that Queen Victoria had recalled her ambassador to France, Lord Lytton, just to make sure he did not attend this Gallic centennial celebration of monarchical downfall. The prince and his family were at the top of the tower barely ten minutes, just long enough to admire the view and sign Gustave Eiffel’s new Livre d’Or, a handsome, oversize green leather bound book with watered-silk end pages. The royal signatures featured impressive flourishes and occupied the entire first page. Theirs would be but the first of many illustrious autographs and messages to come, mementos of this summer when the Eiffel Tower was new. Later Eiffel would say proudly, “We gave the monarchies the spectacle of democracy happy by virtue of its own effort.”

Other signatures in the Livre d’Or are from Auguste Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty; Vicomte de Vogüé and his Russian wife, Sarah Bernhardt, the most famous woman in Paris and the greatest actress of her time; former queen Isabella II of Spain, whose misrule had caused her to be exiled in 1868; the Duke of Edinburgh, an admiral in the British navy; the Russian czar-to-be Nicholas II; Tewfik Pasha, the Khedive of Egypt; Prince Kitiyahara, heir apparent to the throne of Siam, and his younger brothers, Pravita Chira and Rabi; King George of Greece and his queen; Dinah Salifou, Muslim king of Senegal; and Count Münster, the German ambassador, whose government and private enterprises had been ostentatiously boycotting the fair. Nasir al-Din, the Shah of Persia, made to the first platform only by walking up. The Shah balked at riding the Eiffel Tower elevators.

Thomas Edison and Gustave Eiffel

Another signature in the Livre d’Or was that Thomas Edison who made a surprised visit to Paris for the exposition. Edison’s powerful incandescent lights played over the surface of the tower and through the waters of the fountains at the tower’s base. Visitors from every nation crowded together on the Champs de Mars and the Trocadero hill to catch a glimpse of this new form of spectacle. W.B. Franklin wrote with open admiration of these events:

It is a well-known fact that the French excel all other people in the art of ornamental illumination. Every detail connected with the illumination of the Exposition buildings, fountains, and grounds was elaborately worked out, so that it may easily be imagined what a source of interest and pleasure these nightly illuminations were to the hundreds of thousands of visitors, who waited long hours and bore every inconvenience of weather to see them. On many occasions the crowd was enormous, but it was always good-natured, and the simultaneous expressions of surprise, admiration, and delight that came from thousands of voices when the fountains were suddenly lighted up was an amusing and impressive feature of the scene.

Illumination of the tower at night during the 1889 World Fair
Eiffel Tower, 2014

By midsummer most of the writers and artists who had denounced the tower in Le Temps had expressed their mea culpas, with the notable exception of Guy de Maupassant. But even he found that he had no choice but to visit the tower if he wished to socialize. The most chic Parisians and the city’s intellectuals all flocked to the tower restaurants. “Friends no longer dine at home or accept a dinner invitation at your home,” he complained. “When invited, they accept only on condition that it is for a banquet on the Eiffel Tower — they think it gayer that way. As if obeying a general order, they invite you there every day of the week for either lunch or dinner.”

In his travel memoir, La Vie Errante, Maupassant claimed, “I left Paris and even France, because the Eiffel Tower just annoyed me too much. Not only did you see it from everywhere; you found it everywhere made out of every known material, displayed in all the shop windows, an unavoidable and horrible nightmare.” De Maupassant wondered what posterity would think of his generation “if, in some future riot, we do not unbolt this tall, skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant and disgraceful skeleton with a base that seems made to support a formidable monument of Cyclops and which aborts into the thin, ridiculous profile of a factory chimney.”

But de Maupassant and his sour opinions were by now very much in the minority. Most days, even during bad weather, eleven thousand or twelve thousand people swarmed about the tower. Eiffel hoped that he and his shareholders would see almost two million persons pay admission, thus recouping the entire cost of the tower by the end of the fair. The Eiffel Tower was proving to be not only a technological milestone, a potent political symbol, and a great popular and artistic success but also a financial triumph.

The Eiffel Tower’s fame and allure have only grown with the passing decades. In 1889 more than two million people came to ascend the tower. That figure would not be matched again until 1965. Today seven million visitors annually wait in long lines for the pleasure of communing with the landmark. Mega-skyscrapers long ago overshadowed the Eiffel Tower’s status as the world’s tallest structure. Yet no other man-made artefact has ever rivalled the tower’s potent mixture of spare elegance, amazing enormity and complexity when experienced firsthand. The gargantuan wrought-iron skeleton provokes awe as it lays bare the details of Eiffel’s practical engineering genius.

Cartoon of Gustave Eiffel personified as his tower by Edward Linley Sambourne, 1889

The Eiffel Tower, with its sheer aerial playfulness and charm, literally comes to life as crowds clamber up and down its stairs and elevators, and dine and eat and flirt aloft on its platforms high in the sky. And, of course, when visitors feel that frisson of unease as they gaze far below to the panorama of Paris. The Eiffel Tower still speaks uniquely to the human fascination with science and technology and to the human desire for pleasure and joie de vivre. In 1889, Jules Simon, the republican politician and philosopher, declared, “We are all citizens of the Eiffel Tower,” a sentiment as true today as it was then.

Since Eiffel contributed the majority of the tower’s construction costs, he was permitted to have the structure stand for 20 years in order to recoup his investment before it passed into the hands of the Parisian government, which planned to disassemble it for scrap metal. Seeking a way to prove the structure’s strategic utility in a bid to save it, Eiffel erected an antenna atop the tower and financed experiments with wireless telegraphy that began in 1898. The value of the tower in sending and receiving wireless messages, particularly for the French military, caused the city to renew Eiffel’s concession when it expired in 1909. Today, more than 100 antennae on the tower beam radio and television broadcasts around the world.

Story from Eiffel’s Tower by Jill Jones. Construction photos from Rare Historical Photos