Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
In the late 19th century, London nearly got a 1,200-foot steel monument to transcontinental jealousy.
Oh, how the British hated the Eiffel Tower. It’s “a hellish piece of ugliness,” English artist William Morris wrote in the socialist newspaper Commonweal, having seen the 1,000-foot steel structure during its debut at the Paris Exposition of 1889. Pity the Parisians, he sighed, for the Tour d’Eiffel is “a piece of brigandage on the public.”
But haters, as the saying goes, are going to hate, and what was then the tallest tower in the world was a smashing success for the City of Lights. “Constructed with a government subsidy of one-and-a-half million francs, the Eiffel Tower easily paid for itself in admission revenues even before the Exposition closed,” writes historian Robert Jay in his paper on the subject. By October of 1889, Sir Edward Watkin, a politician and railway entrepreneur, had decided that London should have a tower of its own.
The ensuing design competition drew 68 proposals, all of them at least 200 (and some more than 1,000) feet taller than their French cousin-to-be. Iron and steel building technology, of course, was relatively new, and this was to be the British Empire’s own symbol of engineering, architectural and economic might.
An illustrated catalog shows all the proposed designs. Here are a few:
And finally, the winner, an exceedingly practical design that was to be, critically, a full 200 feet taller than the Eiffel Tower. Sir Watkin hoped the tower would attract visitors to his Wembley Park, a proposed pleasure park in northwest London that would also serve as a railway station. The tower would include, as journalist Tim de Lisle writes, "restaurants, shops, promenades, Turkish baths, a theater, a meteorological office, a sanatorium, a science lab and, on top, an observatory." Practically, it would be called the Wembley Park Tower.
But Wembley Park Tower was never completed. By mid-1894, only 150 feet into its construction, its financiers announced that they had halted work for financial reasons. Sir Watkin died in 1901, and the base structure was demolished in 1907.
The legacy of the failed Wembley Park Tower lives on, however, in the most appropriate way possible. What would become known as Wembley Stadium, home of the English national soccer team, opened on that same site in 1923. In the early 2000s, the builders responsible for the ambitious renovation of the stadium rediscovered the tower’s concrete foundations, and re-built the new soccer pitch on top of it. And on November 17, 2010, the English played the French for the first time at the new Wembley. They lost 2 to 1. Foiled again.