A Doomed Attempt at Out-Eiffelling Eiffel

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Even before its inauguration on March 31, 1889, the Eiffel Tower was world famous. Loved by some, reviled by others, it would be the world’s tallest building until New York’s Chrysler Building took the lead in 1930.

Of course, as Paris’s biggest rival for leading European city, London wanted its own tower, even bigger than the one in Paris. So a group of Londoners planned one.

Book Title Page Great Tower of London

The Tower Company Limited was created to carry out the project and offered first and second prizes of 500 and 250 Guineas. The driving force was Sir Edward W. Watkin, Member of Parliament, railroad entrepreneur, and the man behind a failed attempt to build a tunnel under the English Channel for railway traffic. Sir Edward personified the “Railway Mania” of the time.

As Chairman of the Metropolitan Railway, Sir Edward wanted to increase business by creating new attractions—be they amusement parks or suburban dwellings—that people could reach by train. So he purchased a 280-acre tract of land near the hamlet of Wembley in rural Middlesex. In anticipation of massive crowds, he had a new high-capacity railway station built at Wembley and planned to equip the park there with artificial lakes for boating, a waterfall, ornamental gardens, and cricket and football pitches. But the big draw was to be a tower taller and grander than the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

On November 1, 1889, the company issued specifications and asked for designs and cost estimates for “a Tower of not less than 1,200 feet in height” by the end of February 1890. Sixty-eight proposals came from the United Kingdom, United States, Germany, Australia, Sweden, Italy, Austria, Turkey, and Canada.

The specifications stated that “the structure must be so designed as to resist wind pressure, sudden storms, and be guarded as regards lightning.” (The Eiffel Tower was an open lattice structure which readily allowed wind to pass through, thereby reducing the load on the structure and its foundations.) Some designers paid attention to these concerns. Some did not. At the same time, the tower was expected to be a money-maker.

Here we have the winner, which was to rise to 1,200 feet from an octagonal base 300 feet in diameter. It included a hotel with 90 bedrooms. The designers, Messrs. A.D. Stewart, J.M. MacLaren, and W. Dunn, claimed that “the plan being octagonal, the greatest stability with economy is obtained. An octagon affords a nearly equal resistance to bending in all directions.”


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Charles Baillairgé, City Engineer of Quebec City, had the most novel approach to dealing with wind pressure. His 1,600-foot circular design was fully enclosed and was expected to withstand most winds. But, as he put it, “The factor of safety would be increased if the glazing were to be blown out in a hurricane.” Never mind any personal injury from glass shards being blown about. Another advantage he claimed was the “capability of being taken down in sections—each section being useful for other purposes. All bolted together instead of being riveted.”

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The American Architect and Building News selected his design for special note. “For thorough-going ugliness the tower with the motto ‘Circumferentially, Radially and Diagonally Bound’ bears away the palm. It resembles a series of reels of cotton of gradually decreasing size placed one above the other, and surmounted with a wax taper from a Christmas tree.” Baillairgé was a brilliant engineer and designer, but this was not his finest moment.

S. Fisher of London offered the most versatile design. As with modern sweatshirts, it came in four sizes: S, M, L, XL and could rise as high as 2,000 feet at a weight of 312,550 tons.

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In addition to 12 hydraulic elevators, Fisher suggested the Tower Company Limited “run a locomotive engine and train half-way up the spiral gradient. The gradient would begin at 1 in 20 and gradually increase to 1 in 10.”

Other designers also suggested locomotives, one even trained mules, but none so quintessentially Victorian as Max Am Ende’s gothic tower, which featured “a Spiral Railway, worked by steam.” In order to maintain the decorum so highly prized by Victorians, the railway would offer first-, second-, and third-class carriages.

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O.C.D. Ross also submitted a gothic-looking edifice “designed to differ as much as possible from the Eiffel Tower.” Indeed, no one would claim any resemblance.

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And surely no one could confuse the design below with the Eiffel Tower. At 2, 296 feet, this design by Albert Brunel of Rouen was the tallest submitted. Brunel (no relation – as far as we know – to Isambard Kingdom Brunel) suggested it be built of granite. It probably could not have been completed, because the granite at the lower levels would not have been able to support the weight of the rest of the structure. Albert Brunel gave no details as to what it was to contain or the source of his inspiration, although Imperial Rome may have been in his thoughts.

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Design No. 17 from J. Horton of Copley, near Halifax, Yorkshire, tapered from a 180-foot diameter to 42 feet as it rose to a height of 1,200 feet. It looks like a giant screw that has had its tip blunted.

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Another rose to 1,900 feet, but designer J. W. Couchman provides no information on its facilities.

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The design by J.H.M. Harrison-Vasey would, at 1,820 feet, be hard to miss and not much of it appears to have escaped decoration. He eschewed elevators and proposed “a spiral road of about 2½ miles under which a descending Railway is constructed, the incline of both being 1 in 20.” Perhaps the most intriguing feature was the “captive parachute to hold 4 persons, led in guides…fitted in one of the corner towers, and regulated by a brake.” He mentions no restaurants or refreshment stands, but surely visitors who had walked to the observatory floor at the 1,780-foot level would have needed something to quaff while enjoying the view and preparing for the descent.

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The design by Henry Rose and E.J. Edwards seems cluttered and lacking the transparency of the Eiffel Tower. At 1,274 feet it was nowhere near the tallest proposed structure, but provided more detail than many others. There were “Otis” lifts, two 12-foot wide staircases and “a two-track spiral Electric Railway, gradient 1 in 6…which would travel at 5 miles per hour, and 1,600 passengers per hour could be conveyed by it.”

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Visitors would find no shortage of amenities: “This tower is provided with the usual Restaurants, Offices, Shops. There are 6 Bungalows on the 3rd stage and a Photographic room. On the 4th stage are 4 Clubhouses, proposed to be let [rented] to London Clubs, with stage below. On the 5th stage, 2 large Dining or Reception Rooms to be let for private entertainments. On the 6th or top stage there are 4 look-out Bays, 1 Meteorological Room, Photographic Room, small Café, and a room for a Siren Foghorn to be used in conjunction with a Phonograph for advertising purposes. A powerful Electric Searchlight would be fixed in the Lantern, and a projector provided.”

The winning design had included a hotel with 90 guest rooms. But Design No. 42, which bore the name “Utility,” at a height of 1,400 feet, offered Bachelor’s Chambers. With “400 Rooms at a rental of £25 per annum, [it] would produce £10,000 a year.”

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However, it is likely that the greatest revenue would have come from a rather clunky looking building expected to rise to 2,007 ft.

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Proposed by the Thames Iron Works and Shipbuilding Co., it was clearly inspired by the Eiffel Tower, but also by “the Monoliths of Ancient Egypt.” It was to be “constructed out of small parts symmetrically arranged, which is a less costly and more convenient method than adopting gigantic parts. The design was intended “to provide for an aerial colony.” That is, it provided for more than the needs of daily visitors. After listing the many features of the lower levels, which included gardens, restaurants, a museum, a library, and international stores, the proponents announced, “After this comes the Residential part of the Tower, viz: The Hotel, and a Club, also Mansions, Flats and Chambers, the smokeless, fogless atmosphere of which should command a rent proportionate to their Alpine altitude.” The rooms would be heated by electricity.

One of the more visually intriguing designs came from “Neloah” at 224, Stockwell Road, London, S.W. Unfortunately the only information that came with the designs was that it would be 1,200 feet high and was “to be built in concrete.” Concrete was at the time still a largely experimental material for large structures, so “Neloah” was either ahead of his time or out of his depth.

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Although construction actually started on the winning design, a review article in The American Architect and Building News (Vol. XXVIII, No. 755, June 14, 1890, pp. 161–163) held out little hope for the project. First, it had to be an attractive structure, for “there will be no hiding it. [An ugly structure] will expose its forlorn height to every passer-by, and advertise its own failure in the most effectual fashion possible.” Alas, “in reviewing the various designs, we must frankly admit that none excels the Eiffel Tower in beauty and grace.”

But the biggest problem was the question of how it would attract visitors. The Eiffel Tower had been part of an international Exposition that made Paris “the focus of all the pleasure-takers of the world, and was filled with crowds having time on their hands, and money in their pockets which they were anxious to spend.” The London Tower Company was not associated with such a drawing card and risked becoming the kind of attraction for which “immense numbers will postpone the journey for the convenient season which so seldom comes.”

There also seemed to be foundation problems with the marshy ground underneath the site, as well as financial problems as investors lost enthusiasm. Construction halted when the tower had risen to only 47 metres. The company went bankrupt in 1901. For a few years, the incomplete structure was known as Watkins Folly or The London Stump. It was blown up in 1904 and sold for scrap.

But that is not the end of the story. Wembley was chosen as the site for the 1923 British Empire Exhibition, for which the Wembley Stadium was built. In 2000, during the rebuilding of the stadium, the concrete foundations of The London Stump were rediscovered.

By that time London was far ahead of Paris in the tall buildings category, but nobody ever out-Eiffelled Eiffel.

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Text by Norman Ball. First image: author’s collection. Final image: courtesy Roger Dorton. All other illustrations from the Public Domain Review.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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5 Responses to A Doomed Attempt at Out-Eiffelling Eiffel

  1. Meg Morden says:

    Fascinating entry. Thanks Norman.

  2. Ken Bowes says:

    Great review of the finest the worlds’ engineers could propose!

  3. Amy Bakke says:

    The last image of the Eiffel Tower is from Roger Dolton, correct? I’d like to seek his permission to use it in an editorial article about the 21st Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris this year. Please send him my contact information.

    • Thank you for your inquiry but I am afraid I must disappoint you. The post card is one that Roger gave me a few years ago and is part of the personal collection that Philippa and I have. However, the question of who is able to grant use revolves around copyright. With somewhat modern postcards it is not clear as sometimes companies often retain copyright. I am sorry I cannot help you directly. You might want to consult a wonderful web site that has thousands of photos of Paris most of which one might use for non-commercial purposes without a fee. For commercial uses there is a fee. Here is a link to the site http://www.parisenimages.fr/fr
      This is a bilingual site. We often use their images on the blog ParisianFields.Best of luck.

  4. artandarchitecturemainly says:

    Goodness… who knew? Thank you for tracking it all down.

    I realise the Brits wanted something to _compete_ with Paris, not to complement it. However they should have hired Eiffel himself to go to London. His track record was amazing. Eiffel designed the engineering structure of Saint-Joseph church Paris in 1863 and the glass roof of the Palais Galliera/now Musée de la Mode a decade later. He designed the exposed ironwork in the huge Synagogue Tournelles nave. In 1875 the Royal Portuguese Railway Company set up a competition for a bridge to carry the Lisbon-Porto railway across the fast flowing Douro river – Eiffel won and created the lovely Maria Pia bridge.

    Only one failure and the Panama Canal cockup was not Eiffel’s fault. When he was at last invited to design ten giant locks capable of raising vessels about the flood line of the Rio Chagres, it was too late.

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