Local leadership, donation helped
Paris get Eiffel Tower
By ROB YORK
P-I Staff Writer
60-foot Eiffel Tower that sits in Memorial Park is now a trademark of Paris, Tenn.,
appearing on its logo and becoming a necessary view for many a visitor.
However, it did not come to Northwest Tennessee by design. A pair of events in the early 1990s led to its arrival, and had either not occurred the tower might never have become one of Henry County's attractions.
The first of the events was Memphis in May in 1990. The annual Mid-South music festival honors a different foreign country each year, with 1990's theme centering around "All Things French."
Memphis' own Christian Brothers University engineering department honors the coming of the event each year by building a structure from the theme country. Civil engineering professors Tom Morrison and Jim Jacobs, along with lab technician Roland Raffini came together to construct a near-exact 20-to-I scale model of the tower Alexandre Gustave Eiffel designed in the 19th century.
Patrick O'Brien was a public relations official with Christian Brothers at the time the design was plotted. Today,
he works as the school's chief fund-raiser, and is still affectionately referred to as "Brother Pat."
"Professor Morrison found the original drawings of Gustave Eiffel and adapted a scale model," O'Brien said. "We had envisioned it as a kind of showcase of engineering school talent." The structure that Christian Brothers designed was built from 500 pieces of Douglas fir and 6,000 steel rods, with more than 10,000 hours of work donated by the university's students alumni, faculty and supporters.
When Memphis in May ended that year, the university sat the tower in the university's Buckman Quadrangle. Of all the university feats of architecture whipped up for, Memphis in May, the tower proved one of the most popular.
"It was the centerpiece of one of our most popular quads," O'Brien said. "It was perfectly propor tioned."
However, despite a favorable response from onlookers, by the spring after Memphis in May O'Brien realized that it could not be kept there. Mischievous college students began climbing it, even though it could not support their weight.
Also, even the sturdiest of wooden structures would eventually fall apart. So, the tower had to go, but where to?
Americans in Paris
Meanwhile, another experience designed to encourage tourism was taking place nearly three hours to the northeast of Memphis, under the direction of the Paris-Henry County Chamber of Commerce.
Virgil Wall, then the chamber's executive director, recalls that the organization's members realized that Henry County's biggest city had something in common with more than a dozen other municipalities across the nation in name alone.
And so was born the idea of "Paris, USA," a conference that would feature representatives from multiple towns and cities from all over the nation, all named Paris.
"It was an attempt to get good will working in the U.S.," Wall said. "We found fifteen or sixteen in the nation. Most of them had different reasons why they named it Paris."
During two days in April 1991, Henry County hosted ambassadors from five different communities across the country, and none other than the French namesake also sent a delegate.
"Paris, Texas, was the largest city (in the United States) and they sent the biggest delegation," Wall said.
However, the event succeeded at much more than for what it was intended.
Faculty at CBU, wanting to see their Eiffel Tower put to good use, noticed the publicity for Paris, USA, and called Paris only weeks after the event ended.
"One day I was at the office and the phone rang and Brother Patrick O'Brien called," Wall said. He was calling Wall to propose donating the icon.
"They were preparing for a new Memphis in May and wanted space for a new design. They asked if Paris was interested."
Though thrilled with the promotional possibility the tower represented, Wall needed the approval of city administration.
"The chamber could not do it, we were just a conduit," he said.
So Wall placed a call to then-Mayor Richard Dunlap III, and found his excitement returned in kind. "He was elated," Wall recalls of Dunlap's reaction. "He definitely had an interest in the project."
Moving a monument
Wall and Paris' then-City Manager George Moore traveled to Memphis soon after, carrying with them a letter from Dunlap expressing his support for the donation.
They were joined in talks with the university by businessman and then Paris resident Harold Plumley, owner of the Plumley Division of the Dana Corp.
"They were kind of the champions of this project," O'Brien said.
After this meeting, the Paris Commission lent its approval to the donation and it was merely a matter of getting the tower here.
In early 1992, the tower was dismantled, loaded onto a flatbed truck and transported to Paris by employees of the city's Public Works Department.
"It was transported back before a decision was made where to set it," Wall said. "The chamber's original desire was to put it where we could also have our headquarters."
The chamber was moving its headquarters out of Paris City Hall at the time, eventually settling in its current location at 2508 E. Wood St.
"We just never could find a spot where the two could go together," he said.
Eventually the city reached a consensus that the project would be placed in Memorial Park.
A few trees had to be removed in order to make it visible from Volunteer Drive, but in November 1992 the tower was put in place. It was dedicated two months later, a
ceremony that O'Brien attended.
"We were very pleased with where they set it," O'Brien said. "I'm delighted to see it saved."
Wall regards the gift as having given Paris a landmark of its own. "That was kind of a highlight of visible proportions," he said.
Moore remained city manager until June 1993 and now serves as a city commissioner.
In more than a decade of service to the city, the time spent in bringing the tower to Paris has been one of his proudest achievements.
"It has attracted quite a crowd," he said. "I take pride that my children and grandchildren know I took part in it.
The tower today
The tower remained a wood structure, maintained by City of Paris crews until 2002, when the structure was effectively rebuilt as steel, making it a more permanent fixture.
"It takes only a little maintenance now that it's metal," said current City Manager Carl Holder, who succeeded Moore in 1993.
In the not-too-distant future the tower will need a new coat of green paint, but for the time being needs only the touchups of from year to year.
"We're using a system that should last us several years," Holder said.
Wall retired from the chamber in 1994. Since 2001, Jennifer Wheatley has served as executive director. In just that length of time there have been several Eiffel Tower stories:
Weddings have taken place there, a group of state park employees were led to the site during a tour of Henry County, and one time a visitor from out of town took several of her young grandchildren to get their picture made in front of it.
This Kodak moment was arranged because the woman knew that some of her older grandchildren were having their picture made in front of France's Eiffel Tower that very day.
Since it's arrival a dozen years ago, the tower has become a logo for both the area's private and public institutions.
"We use it on our letterhead," Ms. Wheatley said. "It is used by several businesses around town on their letterheads."
Ramay Winchester served as the chamber's assistant executive director from 1990-98. Today she is specialist with the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, but can still clearly remember the role the tower played as a local attraction.
"When we were talking Henry County up with tourism we used to talk it up," she said. "We liked to say that it was the second tallest Eiffel Tower in a Paris."
During tours of the area, chamber staff would see to it that visitors saw the tower during their stay. Even today, as a state employee she can still see the structure's stature.
"When I tell people I'm from Paris, I'm used to hearing, 'Oh the home of the world's Biggest Fish Fry,"' Mrs. Winchester said.
"More and more, I'm hearing, 'Oh, ya'll have that Eiffel Tower."
The Paris Post-Intelligencer Tour
Thursday, March 31, 2005
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