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It’s a secular example of omnipresence.
It barges into almost every Paris scene, like a drunk party guest, whether you want it there or not. Wherever you go, if you look over your shoulder, it’s there . . . lurking.
Am I talking about the iconic Eiffel Tower, the structural symbol of Paris? I wish. Mais non. I am speaking of the monolithic monster that breaches the Paris city center skyline: the Montparnasse Tower (or Maine-Montparnasse Tower to be precise).
Every time it comes into view, you might wonder who gave permission for this 59-story incredible hulk to be built in the center of the romantic City of Light.
You might think back to the controversy when the Eiffel Tower was built. Artists and writers called it “a truly tragic street lamp,” “an ungainly skeleton,” and “the metal asparagus.”
Writer Guy de Maupassant ate lunch every day at the Eiffel Tower because, he claimed, it was the only place where he couldn’t see the offensive structure.
But time brings perspective. And now, the Eiffel Tower is the long-lasting, glowing heart of Paris.
However, even though the Montparnasse Tower serves as a compass point for many, it will probably never be truly embraced.
Using de Maupassant’s logic, though, it is THE place to go for the best view of Paris (a place where you don’t have to see the glass paneled black giant). The good news: The 56th floor restaurant and the 59th floor observation deck are still a relative secret.
In the Beginning . . .
The Tour Montparnasse was completed in 1973 as part of a renovation of the Montparnasse area in the 15th arrondissement, including the train station. The plans were begun in 1959. Architects Beaudouin, Cassan, and Hoÿm de Marien were responsible for the design, with Minister of Interior André Malraux providing the building permit.
The final approval for construction came in 1969 from French President Pompidou, who was focused on urban development and modernization of the city (including the destruction of the Les Halles market, the introduction of an expressway by the Seine, and construction of a new Modern Art Museum now called the Centre Pompidou).
When the Tour Montparnasse was completed, it was the tallest skyscraper in France at 210 meters (689 feet). It did, regrettably, receive a Pluto-like demotion in 2011 when it was surpassed by the 231-meter Tour First in La Défense. Of course, the Eiffel Tower remains the queen at 324 meters.
To ensure that the Eiffel Tower remained at the top of her game, and as perhaps partial recognition that a 59-story building was a mistake in central Paris, buildings over seven stories were banned in the arrondissements shortly after the Montparnasse Tower was completed. (Note: That ban has been lifted as some tall buildings have now been built in several arrondissements, most notably in the 13th and 15th.)
The Beauty in the Beast
The Tour Montparnasse is essentially an office building, but it receives more than one million visitors a year who enjoy the breathtaking views at the top.
The 38-second ride to the 56th floor is not only one of the fastest elevators in Europe, but it also delivers you to the first level of panorama where you have semi-aerial views as well as information stations about Paris history, monuments, and life in the Montparnasse neighborhood.
A few flights of stairs bring you to the open-air observation deck and bar on the 59th floor, where you can see almost every important monument in Paris (except, thankfully, the Tour Montparnasse itself). On a clear day, it is said, you can see for 40 kilometers (almost 25 miles).
You have a bird’s eye view of the expansive Montparnasse Cemetery. Who knew the towers of Saint Sulpice were so tall or the Louvre Palace so expansive? You can see the Luxembourg Gardens and Palace, as well as other famous landmarks reduced to toy-like miniatures. And if you’re like me, you’ll be amazed that you feel as if you’re looking down on the Eiffel Tower, which, in fact, is more than 100 meters taller.
In non-COVID times, the rooftop terrace offers winetasting, jazz concerts, DJ parties, trampolines, yoga classes, and even an ice skating rink in the winter.
You can also have a drink or dinner at the Le Ciel de Paris, the restaurant on the 56th floor.
Claims to Fame
In addition to the extraordinary views, the 56th floor of the tower was also home to a live broadcast of the national lottery in the ’80s and ’90s.
The monolith also attracted urban climbers like the famous French climber Alain “Spiderman” Robert, who free climbed the tower in 1995 and 2015.
The fame was not always welcome. In 2008, the tower was voted the 2nd ugliest building in the world by the Virtualtourist editors. Asbestos contamination was discovered in 2005, with the problem resolved in a multi-year asbestos removal project that forced the evacuation of offices floor by floor.
There is hope for the ugly duckling. An ecological renovation is scheduled for completion in 2024 (although the start date has been delayed). The energy-efficient plan is designed by a consortium of French architects and financed by private investors.
Demain Montparnasse is set to transform the tower into a greener and brighter building, with tree-filled balconies, hanging gardens, and a weather-colored exterior that promises to merge with the sky.
Will the ugly duckling will turn into a swan? We can hold out hope.
For more information about visiting the Tour Montparnasse (after COVID restrictions), click here.
Lead photo credit : Paris at its best. Photo © Meredith Mullins