Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Photo: Luis Pedro Arroyave for Wikimedia Commons
The Eiffel Tower turned 125 years old on Monday, which, of course, prompted a flurry of “Here are my memories of the Eiffel Tower and Paris” blog posts, photo homages, and the inevitable listicle-style article.
The best among the few pieces of any sort that I read was Robert Kunzig’s piece about the backstory of the design of the tower, which he wrote for National Geographic, and which starts like this:
“When you read biographies of Alexandre Gustave Eiffel and his famous tower, which turned 125 yesterday, you’re struck at first by a paradox: How did something so daring, so beautiful, so outrageous—in 1889 it outraged many—come to be built by such a colorless little dweeb?”
Funny. I’d just started researching Eiffel last week. While working on a fact-checking project about Mexico, I had run into a curious detail that made me want to learn more about the French engineer, who was born in 1832 and died in 1923: On Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, in the town of Santa Rosalia, is a small church that was designed by Eiffel in 1884 and set up in Santa Rosalia in 1898.
Church of Santa Barbara in Santa Rosalia, Mexico, designed by Gustave Eiffel.
Yes, I said “set up.” Santa Barbara was a pre-fab structure lacking every bit of the grandeur that compels us to love the Eiffel Tower. Made of metal, it looks, to my eye, like a gussied-up barn. It wouldn’t have been out of place, aesthetically; Santa Rosalia was a mining town and the mine bosses didn’t seem to prioritize community beautification projects (a fact that’s also reflected in the interesting names of Santa Rosalia’s neighborhoods, one of which was called “Purgatorio,” or “Purgatory.” Yikes.).
Apparently, Eiffel had designed the church for a destination in Africa, though it never ended up there, according to María Eugenia De Novelo, who wrote a history of the town for a 1989 issue of The Journal of San Diego History. De Novelo wrote that Eiffel intentionally built the church of metal, rather than wood, because he believed the latter material would be less resistant to the climate and threats to architecture (ie: insect pests) that he believed existed in Africa.
I added Santa Barbara to my growing list of Eiffel spots I want to visit and eventually write about, a list I started several years ago. Eiffel–or at least his work–had made it to other unexpected places, which I’d learned about on a variety of other projects, none of which were ever related to Eiffel himself. In fact, I realized, I knew very little about him, and was (and remain) curious about his background, his life, and, in particular, his travels. Did he, for example, ever make it to the mainland of Puerto Rico or its outlying island of Mona, where a lighthouse he designed still stands (albeit in disrepair) today?
It has been somewhat of a surprise to me that for an engineer and architect who was so prolific and whose influence and reach were so geographically vast, especially for his day and age, the information about him and a complete list of his work is actually rather scant. This compilation of his structures and projects, for example, doesn’t include the Santa Rosalia church, nor the Mona lighthouse. I haven’t begun digging around in earnest yet, but it’s exciting to think about what may still remain to be learned–or at least, shared more widely-about a man whose name we know so well.