main synagogue entrance in Rue de Tournelles
architect: Marcellin Emmanuel Varcollier
But then something remarkable happened. Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) had been appointed as the principal engineer of the Compagnie Belge way back in 1857. Apparently his work had gained the attention of several important people who were impressed, especially once they saw the metalwork of the Bordeaux bridge. Further promotion within the company followed, but in 1865 Eiffel felt he had to resign and set up as an independent consulting engineer.
exposed ironwork in the nave
engineer Gustave Eiffel
Eiffel designed the engineering structure of Saint-Joseph church Paris in 1863 and the glass roof of the Palais Galliera/now Musée de la Mode a decade later. His fame was spreading. Varcollier invited Eiffel to prepare designs for exposed ironwork in the splendid Synagogue Tournelles nave which was to be 21 meters wide. Eiffel also took the role of protecting the Holy Ark by really lovely wrought iron gates that have decorative value but no real security role.
The street façade in rue des Tournelles, highlighted by a rose window of stained glass, might have come from a church. But one element made it clear that the building was Jewish. The iconic Tablets of the Law were sculpted, inscribed in Hebrew letters and placed high above the front facade.
In the centre, two heraldic shields of Paris indicated that synagogue was successfully constructed, in part because of the financial contribution by the city. Paris' City Council had given its approval because the Jewish population of Paris was rising and the old synagogues were starting to look inadequate.
finely wrought iron gates in front of the ark
But the Holocaust exterminated part of the Ashkenazi community and by 1946 the congregation was much reduced. By the 1950s, the synagogue was being used by Sephardi Jews instead. I know what difference that would make to the liturgy and the music, but I wonder if it would make any difference to the architecture.
Synagogue Tournelles has been attacked by neo-Nazi thugs but has never been destroyed. Fortunately the synagogue was classified as a Historic Monument in 1987.
In 1875 the Royal Portuguese Railway Company set up a competition for a bridge to carry the Lisbon-Porto railway across the river fast flowing Douro river. The Maria Pia bridge, which Joe and I saw in Porto last year, was built in 1877 by Gustave Eiffel! Built of wrought iron, its two-hinged crescent arch used to carry the railway to Lisbon for 350 metres across the River Douro at a height of 60 metres over the water. When it was inaugurated in 1877, it was the longest single-arch span in the world.
Now consider the immaculate timing. Did the Royal Portuguese Railway Company travel to Paris to see Synagogue Tournelles - between the time the synagogue plans were first considered in 1872 and the time the synagogue was inaugurated in 1876? In any case the success of Eiffel's Ponte Maria Pia in 1877 was more likely than Eiffel's synagogue to have inspired later engineering design (especially over inhospitable river gorges) in France, Spain and elsewhere.