The Rusting Eiffel Tower Gets a Paint Job; Critics Say Much More Is Needed

By: Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 
Eiffel tower
Rust is visible on a pillar of the Eiffel Tower March 8, 2021, before the 20th campaign of painting and stripping was begun, in Paris, France. Chesnot/Getty Images

In May 1889, the Exposition Universelle, or Paris World's Fair, introduced millions of visitors to what was called the "300-meter Tower," a large puddle iron structure at one end of the Champ de Mars. Although many important figures in the arts and literature, such as Charles Garnier and Guy de Maupassant, had protested its construction, the tower was a success, welcoming more than 2 million visitors its first year. Today, that number is more than 6 million a year, and the structure we're referring to is, of course, the Eiffel Towel, named for its famed engineer, Gustave Eiffel.

With all the traffic on three visitable levels today — restaurants, bars and shops — it's no surprise the Eiffel Tower requires maintenance. However, the real culprit in its need for upkeep is coming from the air — the effects of oxidation, pollution and even bird poop. Like other great landmarks, the cost of maintaining the structure is a high one. To get it ready for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, a $60 million (50 million euro) renovation project was launched, according to France 24.

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There have been questions about whether the efforts will be enough. Relying on confidential reports, a 2022 article in Marianne contended that the Eiffel Tower is in a terrible state and its planned maintenance leaves a lot to be desired. Although it needs "full repair," cites The Guardian, "it is being given only a cosmetic makeover" for the Olympics.

According to the official Eiffel Tower website, it gets a complete paint job every seven years, a frequency recommended by Eiffel himself, and a course of action said to give it eternal life. The process consists of stripping, cleaning, applying rust-proofing and then painting the tower.

Before getting into what is and is not going to be done, let's get a better understanding of the structure itself and why it's in the condition it's in.

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Building the Eiffel Tower

Although it looks graceful in photos, up close, the Eiffel Tower is most notable for its massiveness. It stands 984 feet (300 meters) high — plus a bit extra if you count toppers like flagpoles and antennae — and sits on a base measuring 410 feet (125 meters) in width. Its metal frame weighs 7,300 tons (6,622 metric tons).

The shape of the tower is magical, according to Benjamin Schafer, a professor of civil and systems engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

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"It's essentially the perfect shape for resisting wind load," he says.

Built during just two years, two months and five days, the tower was meant to stand for only 20 years. But it turned out to be handy for radio and telecommunications transmissions, and of course, people worldwide wanted to visit. "Since the 1980s, the monument has been regularly renovated, restored and adapted for an ever-growing public," according to the Eiffel Tower website.

Eiffel tower
Since its construction 132 years ago, the Eiffel Tower has been painted seven different colors, but maintaining the tower is a battle against the elements, which constantly eat away its iron frame.
Chesnot/Getty Images

Following its first in-situ paint job in 1889, the tower has undergone several color changes. Originally, the parts were painted Venetian red, while subsequent coats of paint have included reddish-brown, ochre brown, yellow-brown and brownish-red. In 1899, the tower had a five-hue golden gradient from yellow-orange at the base to light yellow at the top. Since 1968, it has been 'Eiffel Tower brown' in three shades, with the darkest at the bottom. If that palette sounds dull, it was "chosen for its harmony with the Parisian cityscape," according to the website, but it will be painted a golden hue in time for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.

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Maintaining a Metal Structure

Eiffel's tower, conceived by two engineers from his firm, Émile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin, working with architect Stephen Sauvestre, was the winning design of an open competition for the world's fair being planned in Paris. Writing in Structure magazine, Roumen V. Mladjov stated in 2014 that it "is the materialized symbol of progress during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century."

Despite its 19th-century trailblazing, the tower was constructed of iron, not steel, which would become a predominant building material shortly afterward with the birth of the modern skyscraper.

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"It was built out of the only material that could have built that form at that time," says Schafer. "Corrosion and fatigue are the two big things we worry about for maintenance." Luckily, corrosion, a chemical reaction requiring oxygen and moisture, is a slow process, and like steel, iron can be protected from it by a barrier. That barrier is paint.

Eiffel knew plenty about metal structures and how to make them long lasting — he had been building iron bridges for nearly three decades by the time the construction of the tower began. And the design of the tower has a lot in common with an arched iron bridge. Take a look at the Ponte Maria Pia that crosses the River Douro in Porto, Portugal, and you'll see a lot of similarities. Eiffel was the architect of the bridge, which was built between 1876 and 1877.

Now think about bridge maintenance; for example, the Golden Gate Bridge. Its steel structure is painted continuously, but not all at once. The bridge is painted "based on priorities" determined by where corrosion is advancing.

Eiffel tower
Two workers clean the Eiffel Tower with the aid of ropes and harnesses, Feb. 7, 2022. For the 2024 Paris Olympic Games, the tower will go back a few decades and regain the golden color it sported at the beginning of the 20th century.
ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images

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Eiffel Tower Upkeep

The planned renovation of the Eiffel Tower in advance of the Olympics had included stripping a third of the tower and applying two new coats of paint. However, now only 5 percent will be treated because of COVID-19 delays and "the presence of worrying levels of lead in the old paint," according to The Guardian. Furthermore, the Société d'Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel (SETE), the organization that operates and maintains the tower "as part of a delegated public service contract with the City of Paris," is hesitant to lose the income that a temporary closure for renovation would bring, according to The Guardian.

As cited in The Guardian, reports released from 2010 to 2016 noted issues, faults and concerns with the maintenance and condition of the Eiffel Tower. One from 2014 by paint company Expiris "found the tower had cracks and rusting and only [10 percent] of the newer paint of the tower was adhering to the structure."

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When they happen, painting campaigns can take from 18 months to three years, involve about 50 painters and use 60 tons (54 metric tons) of paint, according to the tower website. Striking a balance between tourist demands and site maintenance falls on SETE. The organization set up a watchdog body to evaluate client satisfaction, and its 2019 results showed that 96 percent of visitors who responded would recommend the monument to friends or family.

"It's a continual process to keep things up," says Schafer. "The Eiffel Tower is worth maintaining because we love it."

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