The Story Behind the Eiffel Tower’s Forgotten Competitors

The Story Behind the Eiffel Tower’s Forgotten Competitors

By Charles Pappas


Because iconic skylines are never predetermined.

By Charles Pappas

  • World’s fairs have launched some of our most bold and iconic structures, but there were plenty more wild ones left on the cutting room floor.
  • These fantastical structures — think an 1,000-foot guillotine or 1,000-mile slide — represent an era of architectural ambition and wonder.

For nearly 170 years, world’s fairs have famously supplied their participating countries with a global stage for innovative, even radical, design and architecture. Britain did it with its groundbreaking Crystal Palace at the first world’s fair in 1851, its 293,000 panes of glass held together by 1,000 iron columns. Other gems followed: the Atomium in Brussels, the Space Needle in Seattle and the two that became the world’s fair equivalent of classic rock: the Eiffel Tower, which debuted at the 1889 Exposition Universelle, and the Ferris wheel built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

A View of the Great Industrial Exhibition in Hyde Park, 1859

Crystal Palace at the first world’s fair in 1851

Source Getty

They’re iconic now, but the two beloved sculptures might easily never have been. Gustave Eiffel’s Tower was just one of 300 to 700 submitted pitches (estimates vary) vying to be Paris’ world’s fair centerpiece.

Yet the spire that was ultimately erected on the Champ de Mars was an order of magnitude less audacious than one of the most peculiar also-rans: a 1,000-foot-tall guillotine that would have commemorated France’s headless-horseman history, when at least 17,000 people were guillotined during the Reign of Terror, including King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. Little is recorded of the ornamental, Godzilla-sized pillar with a blade — no contemporary illustrations, no manifesto behind its conception, no specs on the size of the cutting edge, only enough stray details to tease us with what might have been. 

In an age of extreme building, anything was possible if you just had enough raw material and the chutzpah to defy known limitations.

Even after it was finished, the Eiffel Tower’s life-span was originally set at 20 years. Scheduled to be demolished in 1909, the spire was saved by its utility as a radiotelegraph post as much as its popular acceptance. Nonetheless, it attracted the attention of those who would improve it. Engineer Charles Carron of Grenoble, Switzerland, suggested that a 40-foot-long, 20,000-pound, bullet-shaped container should be added to the tower’s silhouette. Once tourists filled the vessel’s 20 leather armchairs, it would plunge into an artificial lake shaped like a champagne glass. Later assessments by those with a firmer grasp of physics estimated the capsule would have hit the water at a bone-mulching 180 mph.

Nearly a half century later, at the 1937 Paris Exposition, French engineer Eugène Freyssinet planned his concrete “Phare du Monde,” aka “Lighthouse of the World.” The colossus would have been roughly as large as the Empire State Building and the Eiffel Tower if they were stacked on top of each other. Wrapped around it like an ivy vine was a spiraling ramp that would allow drivers to motor up its sides, park in the 500-car garage and hike a few more steps to dine in the 2,000-seat restaurant near the top. Freyssinet’s castle in the air would have cost in the neighborhood of $2.5 million (roughly $46 million today), a price that was understandably prohibitive during the Depression. 

Yet even the sky-high razor and lighthouse shrink next to the schemes proposed for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Before fair officials decided on the wheel designed by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., they heard a pitch from the Toboggan Transportation Co., which proposed a 9,000-foot-tall pylon — more than three times the size of the Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest building on Earth. More than just a looming monolith, though, the eccentric construction would have linked Chicago with New York and Boston via slides so the residents of those cities could toboggan to the Windy City for the fair. It was less a joke than a vote of confidence that in an age of extreme building — the Eiffel Tower, the Brooklyn Bridge and more — anything was possible if you just had enough raw material and the chutzpah to defy known limitations. 


Alberto de Palacio Ellisagne designed a 1,000-foot globe for the 1893 Chicago expo.

With even more architectural fervor, architect Alberto de Palacio Ellisagne designed a 1,000-foot globe for the Chicago expo. Encircling the pseudo-planet would be a spiral stairway running more than half a mile long, leading up to a “North Pole,” where a replica of one of Columbus’ ships would be docked, awaiting visitors. Its Earth-size price tag (roughly $168 million in today’s currency) prevented Palacio from building his better world. It did, however, win him the cover of Scientific American.

The motivations driving these monuments was a fevered patriotism that expressed itself through ambitious architecture. “The Crystal Palace in 1851 itself was an amazing ‘signature structure,'” says John Findling, author of America: World’s Fairs in the United States and Encyclopedia of World’s Fairs and Expositions. “From the world’s fairs beginnings, there was an implicit competition among the largest trading nations, with the host country having ‘home court advantage’ to build these edifices. The folks who would soon be putting together the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago were consumed by the idea that they had to ‘out-Eiffel Eiffel’ as a symbol of nationalism.”

Delayed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Expo 2021 in Dubai will see monuments whose visual audacity might impress Kim Jong-un. Luxembourg’s pavilion will look like a giant Möbius strip pushed over on its side. The UAE pavilion will mimic the smooth-edged wings of a raptor. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom will weave the power of artificial intelligence into a structure resembling a giant megaphone. Visitors will enter through an illuminated maze, then be invited to contribute words from kiosks, after which an AI-powered algorithm will collect and parse them into poetry, and perhaps shoot them into outer space.

From the Crystal Palace to the proposed Poem Pavilion, these buildings have ranged from ones that would have been familiar to either Queen Victoria or George Jetson. But the ideas that never took form in stone or steel still provoke the imagination. More beautiful for never having been built, they stand eternal, unfazed by time and undisturbed by dust, remaining eternally lit by the imagination of the wonders that might have been.