Both Paris and London are cities with a huge number of recognisable, famous landmarks. Show most people a photo of Tower Bridge or the Eiffel Tower, and they’re likely to know what they’re looking at.
Both cities also have their share of landmarks that have been lost to time. For example, the huge Tuileries Palace in Paris was burned down during the Paris Commune of 1871.
In this post though, we’ll discover five London and Paris landmarks which were almost destroyed, but lived to tell the tale. With a bit of luck, when the current crisis is over and we can wander the streets of Paris and London once more, we’ll appreciate what we have.
1) Musée d’Orsay, Paris
The Musée d’Orsay in Paris holds the largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works in the world. But did you know that it was once almost demolished?
It’s fairly common knowledge that the building that now houses the museum was originally a train station. The Gare d’Orsay was built, impressively, in just two years, in time for the World’s Fair in 1900. However, the train station didn’t last very long. By 1939 longer trains and the electrification of the railroads meant it was only suitable for serving the suburbs.
After serving numerous purposes throughout the next decades (it was used as a mailing centre during the Second World War, as a space for auctioneers, and even for a theatre company), by the 1970s the building was set to be destroyed, and a new, modern hotel complex was to be built in its place.
The Direction des Musées de France, who planned to build a new museum, housing works from the second half of the 19th Century, were able to save the building. After many (typically French) bureaucratic setbacks and a colossal building project, the museum finally opened its doors in December of 1986.
Want to know more about the Musée d’Orsay’s journey from station to museum? Check out this great online exhibit on Google Arts & Culture, as featured in our post on how to experience our museums from home!
2) London Eye, London
It’s been just over twenty years since the first passengers boarded the London Eye. At the time, it was the world’s largest Ferris wheel. Although three others (in Las Vegas, Singapore, and China respectively) have since overtaken it, the London Eye remains the UK’s most popular paid attraction.
But, when the London Eye was being built in the late 1990s, its creators didn’t envision it becoming such a recognisable London landmark. They intended to build a temporary attraction in celebration of the new millennium, and the owners had only a five-year lease for its spot on the South Bank of the Thames.
However, it didn’t take long for the owners to realise they were onto a real money-earner. They applied for a permanent license in December 2001, less than a year after the London Eye had opened to the public.
3) Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris
One of the more famous and devastating almost-losses on this list was the partial destruction of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral in 2019. In April of last year, the world was shocked by images of flames pouring from the almost 700-year-old cathedral’s roof.
The fire destroyed most of the roof and the spire, but it was eventually brought under control. Many works of art were also destroyed or damaged in the fire, though some had been removed in preparation for renovations, and others were evacuated in time after the fire started.
There was a brief flurry of conspiracy theories after the fire (mostly because of statues that had been removed before it started). But an investigation showed that it was just a tragic accident. The French Presdent launched an international fundraising campaign immediately after the fire, reaching €1 billion in pledged donation in just a week. And works on rebuilding the cathedral have begun – though they could take up to twenty years or more to complete.
4) St Paul’s Cathedral, London
St Paul’s Cathedral is one of London’s most famous landmarks. But the cathedral that we see today is actually the fifth version of St Paul’s, with earlier versions having burnt down.
The present-day St Paul’s was built after the previous one burned down in the Great Fire of London. Although reconstruction might have been possible, discussions about significant renovations had already been ongoing. The famous architect Christopher Wren designed a new, more modern cathedral to replace the old church. It took more than 35 years to complete.
However, St Paul’s troubles were far from over. During the London Blitz, St Paul’s was particularly at risk because of the amount of timber in its roof. The cathedral was actually hit by bombs several times. On 12th September 1940, a bomb landed on the ground outside the cathedral. Luckily, a team of bomb disposal experts were able to diffuse the bomb before it could explode.
In December 1940, a particularly heavy bombing meant that 28 bombs hit the cathedral in one night. Miraculously, the cathedral was saved, thanks to volunteers who scrambled through the smouldering rafters to douse flames.
The present version of St Paul’s Cathedral has been standing strong for more than three hundred years, despite the considerable odds against it.
5) Eiffel Tower, Paris
It’s hard to imagine Paris without its most famous of landmarks, the Eiffel Tower. The “Iron Lady” has been watching over Paris since the World’s Fair of 1889. When it was built, it was the tallest man-made structure in the world, with a height of over 300 metres. It was overtaken by the Chrysler Building in New York in 1930, though pleasingly, the addition of a radio broadcasting aerial in 1957 means that the Eiffel Tower is now taller again by 5.2 meters.
Though the tower was initially met by protests, it has become a beloved symbol of Paris. However, like the London Eye a hundred years later, it was never intended to be a permanent structure. The rules of the competition to design the centrepiece of the 1889 World Fair included an important caveat: the resulting structure had to be easy to dismantle. Gustave Eiffel was initially granted a permit for his tower for twenty years. He also received all income from the commercial use of the tower both during the exposition and for the twenty years that followed.
However, the tower was eventually spared, thanks to its usefulness for communication purposes. And it has been useful: apart from bringing in vast amounts in tourism each year, the tower is still used to broadcast radio and digital television signals today!
Your Favourite London and Paris Landmarks?
Next time you’re gazing up at the Eiffel Tower or meandering through the Musée d’Orsay, be sure to say a quick word of thanks to the fates for preserving these treasures! What are your favourite landmarks in London and Paris? Let us know in the comments!