3.7. FRANCE’S BID TO RECAPTURE THE TALLEST BUILDING RECORD: EIFFEL’S 300-METER TOWER

First published drawing of the Eiffel Tower, Génie Civil, December 13, 1884, reprinted in American Architect, February 21, 1885. Note that the French refuse to accept the existence of the Washington Monument by not listing it in the list of the tallest structures in the world. (Loyrette, Eiffel)

Let’s review the 300-meter tower in order to get a better appreciation for the measure of Eiffel’s accomplishment.  Why was it built in the first place?  Perhaps the first published image of the Eiffel Tower in the American press may have said it best.  On it were listed the tallest structures in the world at this moment:

                  Strasbourg Cathedral             142m/469′

                  Rouen Cathedral                     150m/495′

                  Cologne Cathedral                 159m/515′

                  “Projected” Tower                    300m/986′

Curiously, the Washington Monument, completed to a height of 555′, making it the tallest structure in the world, on December 6, 1884, only a week earlier than when this drawing was first published in France, was not included in this list.  Neither was the German St. Nikolai Church in Hamburg, completed in 1874 at 483.’ There may have been just a “slight amount of national prestige” involved in the final decision to build Eiffel’s Tower.  Le Genie Civil proudly announced Eiffel’s design on December 13, 1884:

“For a long time it seemed as if the Americans were to remain the leaders in these daring experiments that characterize the investigations of a special genius that enjoys pushing… the strength of materials to their extreme limits.  (But now France could finally be proud of Eiffel and his engineers, who were had mastered) the colossal aspects of the problem… they seem to have considered these aspects as a natural extension of the enormous metal structures that they executed earlier, and in fact they do not feel that these aspects represent the maximum achievement possible in the erection and superimposition of metal.”

Johann Sonntag, The Duke of Lorraine and Imperial Troops Crossing the Rhine before Strasbourg, 1744. Strasbourg Cathedral, 1015-1439. At 469’ it was the tallest building in the world, 1647-1874. (Online)

It is a little-appreciated fact that even before the Prussian’s crushing defeat of the Second Empire in 1871, the French and the Germans had been engaged in a very serious game of nationalistic one-upmanship in terms of who had the tallest building in the world.  The spire of 469’ Strasbourg Cathedral (the city had been a Free Imperial City in the Holy Roman (German) Empire since 1262) was thought to have been the tallest structure in the Western world since 1647, when a lightning strike had destroyed the 495′ spire of St. Mary’s Church in Stralsund, Germany.  (The Great Pyramid of Cheops, originally built to 481’ but over time its veneer had been stripped reducing its height to 450’ was but a legend at this time. Its height wasn’t truly measured until 1882.)  This was the record-holding position the Strasbourg tower held in 1681 when Louis XIV annexed the city into the Kingdom of France.  This “temporary” ownership by the French, however, had not prevented Goethe from reminding one and all that it been a German who had originally designed it (in 1015, completed in 1439) in his 1772 essay, On German Architecture:

“thank God that [we Germans] can proclaim that this is German architecture, our architecture.  For the Italian has none he can call his own, still less the Frenchman.”

Notwithstanding the building’s German heritage, French cultural chauvinism had grown accustomed over the last 190 years to having the tallest building in the world.  (Even though in April 1794 following the revolution, its tower had been slated for demolition by anticleric radicals  who argued that the church was counter to the idea of equality.  Fortunately, within a month a group of townspeople stopped the plan by constructing a huge, metal Phrygian cap over the top of the tower. On the other hand, France’s largest and arguably, most historic church, the Benedictine Abbey at Cluny was not so fortunate.) But like so many other embarrassments that resulted from the 1870-1 war with the Prussians, Strasbourg, as part of Alsace, was lost by the French (or returned to Germany) when it was annexed into the new German Empire.  

George Gilbert Scott, St. Nikolai Kirche, Hamburg, 1846-74. At 483’, it was the tallest building in the world, 1874-76. (Online)

In 1874, the spire of St. Nikolai Church in Hamburg, newly designed in 1846 from the ground up by British architect George Gilbert Scott (Midland Hotel in front of St. Pancras Station), was completed to a new record of 483,’ that only poured salt into the French post-war psyche.  The French reclaimed the record within two years in 1876 when Rouen Cathedral, whose lantern spire had been destroyed by lightning in 1822, received a new cast iron spire that was completed to the purposeful height of 495′ in order to be taller than the final projected height of the spires of Cologne Cathedral, then nearing completion. 

Rouen Cathedral and its Lantern Tower, 1876. At 495’ it was the tallest building in the world, 1876-1880. The right tower, known as the “Butter Tower,” was the precedent used by Raymond Hood in the design of the Chicago Tribune building. (Online)

But this record held for only a short four years, however, for the finials on Cologne’s spires were simply made even taller. Kaiser Wilhelm I, who had been crowned at Versailles only nine years earlier, once again was happy to deliver the coup de grace to the French by dedicating the 515′ high twin towers of Cologne Cathedral on August 14, 1880.

Cologne Cathedral, completed 1880. At 515’ it was the tallest building in the world, 1880-1884. (Online)

3.8. THE WASHINGTON MONUMENT IS FINALLY COMPLETED

The resumption of construction of the Cologne Cathedral seems to have provided the final impetus for the U.S. Government to complete the Washington Monument.  Construction on the monument had been abandoned since 1854, where it had reached only 170′ of Robert Mills original height of 600′ in his 1846 design.  Its current condition stood as a testament to the state of the national will of the time: while the original ambition was to build the tallest structure in the world, the American government and its people could not deliver the goods.  The revival of nationalistic pride that accompanied the centennial in 1876 had finally pressured Congress to address the project.  In August 1876, it passed a joint resolution in which Congress “in the name of the people of the United States, at the beginning of the Second Century of the National Existence, do assume and direct the completion of the Washington Monument in the city of Washington.”  The privately funded Monument Society ceded its property, including the half-constructed obelisk, to the Federal Government, and the Army Corps of Engineers initiated a review of the structure’s foundation.

Partially Completed Washington Monument, photographed by Matthew Brady, ca. 1860. (Online)

The problem was that architectural tastes had greatly changed since 1846, when Mills’ Classical simplicity of the obelisk was then in vogue.  Almost everyone thought it would be best to demolish the existing work and start over, including with a different, more fashionable design.  Drawings and suggestions had flooded the committee charged with completing the project, and gridlock, so typical of Congress, resulted.  Meanwhile, Rouen Cathedral had been topped off at 495′ in 1876 with the appropriate fanfare.  

The Washington National Monument Society, Revised Plan, after 1873. Note Strasbourg Cathedral on the left. At this time, the projected height of the monument was 501.’ (Library of Congress, Freeman, Columbia Historical Society)

One of the first steps that led to the final design of the Washington Monument was a paper presented to the Monument Society in 1876 by J. Goldsborough Bruff.  In it he pointed out that great strides in Egyptian archeology had been made since Mills’ original design, and that it should be revised to be more historically accurate.  He had, therefore, redesigned the obelisk, setting its final height at 501′ one foot higher than the recent-announced revised height of 500′ of Cologne, that had been increased in order to be taller than Rouen.  In October 1877, the Army Corps of Engineers issued its report on the foundation, stating that it could be reinforced to support the original Mills design if so desired.  More than two years of deadlock continued while the Germans pushed ahead with the completion of Cologne, the final height of which had again been increased this time by fifteen feet to 515′ to be taller than the proposed American monument.   Cologne was completed in 1880.   

The Washington Monument as the tallest structure in the world, 1884. To the left of the Washington Monument, #34 is Cologne Cathedral. To the right, #42 is the spire of Lincoln Cathedral, destroyed in 1549. (Online)

The extra height, however, was simply not sufficient to hold back the Americans, who had reproportioned the obelisk to a truer ratio of the height equals ten times the base.  This made the final height of the obelisk to be 555′ and 51/8“.  By this time, the work on the foundation by the Army Corps of Engineers had been finished and they were recommending that the project be completed.  On August 7, 1880, only the week before Kaiser Wilhelm would dedicate the completed Cologne Cathedral, President Rutherford B. Hayes placed a new cornerstone and construction finally resumed.  An aluminum pyramid was set at the top of the obelisk on December 6, 1884, completing the tallest structure in the world.  Was it simply a coincidence or naked French chauvinism that found two of Eiffel’s engineers, Emile Nougier and Maurice Koechlin, discussing and doing preliminary calculations on their own for a 300-m iron tower in May 1884, as the Washington Monument neared completion?

Washington Monument. Setting the Aluminum Capstone, December 6, 1884. (Online)

(If you have any questions or suggestions, please feel free to eMail me at: thearchitectureprofessor@gmail.com)

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