After spending three weeks in France, I came home energized and exhausted, if that makes sense. I’m eager to share some of my trip but this week I’ve been catching up on the business of living my actual life, not the fantasy life that I live while traveling. That being the case, I thought I’d share a few surprising facts about the Eiffel Tower.
Color Me Beautiful
Since its construction, the Eiffel Tower has donned 7 different colors. Here is a timeline:
- 1887, Venise Red
- 1889, Redish Brown
- 1892, Brownish Ochre
- 1900, Gradation of colors (from orange at the base to light yellow at the top)
- 1907, Brownish Yellow
- 1954, Brownish Red
- 1968, Eiffel Tower Brown
The tower is repainted about every 7 years and is currently undergoing a deeper cleanse. In many areas of the giant structure, workers are stripping off all previous 19 coats of paint. The current color is being replaced with a shade of yellow-brown that Gustave Eiffel allegedly preferred. The work has been ongoing since 2019 but the pandemic and high concentrations of lead have slowed the landmark’s latest makeover.
Some reports claim that the tower is riddled with rust and that the effort to finish the project before the 2024 Olympic Games is preventing much-needed repairs. As is, the cosmetic facelift is expected to cost $60 million and when finished the Eiffel will sport a beautiful new shade of gold.
Breathing as well as Breathtaking
Given that the Eiffel Tower is constructed out of wrought iron beams, it may not come as a surprise to learn that it shrinks and expands with the changing seasons. In the winter, freezing temperatures cause the tower to contract and summer heat causes it to grow. The difference in height between these two seasons ranges between 6 to 7 inches.
This phenomenon, however, also provokes a slight inclination away from the side of the tower that faces the sun. The highest deviation of this nature took place in 1976 when the top of the tower inclined 18 cm. Fortunately, such variations have zero impact on the stability of the structure and are imperceptible to observers.
Built to Last for 20 Years
The Eiffel Tower was built as one of the main attractions at the 1889 World’s Fair. The city of Paris planned to dismantle La dame de fer after 20 years—the point at which Gustave Eiffel’s permit to use the property expired. Not wanting to see his monumental beauty destroyed, Eiffel funded the installation of a meteorology laboratory on the third and highest stage of the tower. There, scientists conducted a wide variety of experiments and recorded myriad meteorological and astronomical observations.
By creating a lab that boasted equipment and conditions unavailable anywhere else in the world, Eiffel managed to save his tower which remained the tallest structure in the world until the Chrysler Building opened in New York in 1930. By that time, the Eiffel Tower had become a world-renowned landmark. The initial negative reaction of many Parisians—that it was a monumental eyesore that clashed with the surrounding architecture—had long since dissipated.
The Tower Narrowly Escaped Destruction
At the end of World War II, as Allied forces were nearing Paris, Adolph Hitler ordered General Dietrich von Choltiz to destroy the city. Von Choltitz was serving as the military governor of Paris. Hitler’s telegraphed order was categorical, « Paris ne peut tomber entre les mains de l’ennemi ou seulement comme un champ de ruines ».
Accounts of what happened next vary widely. In his memoir, published in 1950, Von Choltitz claimed that he saved the French capital by refusing to obey Hitler’s demand. This version of history is bolstered by the 2014 French film Diplomatie, starring Niels Arestrup. But documentary filmmaker, Françoise Cros de Fabrique, was skeptical of the story. After conducting his own investigation, he released Détruire Paris, les plans secrets d’Hitler in 2019, transforming von Choltitz’s testimony into myth.
The documentary provides ample evidence that von Choltiz was a disciplined officer who hated the French. Before surrendering, he ordered the mining of several of the city’s monuments and bridges. The explosives were later dismantled by French police. If von Choliz failed to destroy Paris, it was because he was running out of time and troops to carry out his orders. In the end, he accepted the ceasefire presented to him by Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling to save his own skin, not the city.
Despite the ceasefire agreement, Hitler was not about to give up and so ordered missile strikes, hoping to turn Paris to powder. Nazi General Hans Speidel claimed that he failed to carry out the order because he found the idea of destroying Paris to be absurd. In reality, the strikes were impossible to execute.
Hitler also ordered Germany’s airforce, the Luftwaffe, to bombard the capital. One hundred and twenty airplanes dropped hundreds of bombs on Paris during the night of August 26, 1944. Missiles were also fired from Belgium. Luckily, such strikes were far from precise and by October 6, Hitler decided to concentrate all bombing efforts on London. (For more about precision bombing, see my review of Malcom Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia.)
Last and Arguably Least
The Eiffel Tower is not France’s most visited attraction. While each year 7 million people pay the entrance fee to climb or ride to its higher platforms, other touristic sites claim to attract more visitors. Versailles welcomes 10 million people per year, Notre Dame attracts 12 to 14 million, the Louvre about 8 million, and Disneyland Paris averages around 12 million visitors per year.
I attribute Eiffel’s lower attendance to its magnificent structure. It’s visible from all over Paris and so can be appreciated from afar. When fully loaded the tower’s three platforms only accommodate 5,000 people. No one returns from a trip to Paris claiming they failed to see the Eiffel Tower, whereas almost everyone fails to see all of the other attractions I’ve mentioned.
I invite you to share your own fun fact or interesting anecdote about the Eiffel Tower in the comments below.