The Stories Behind the World’s Most Famous Buildings

The Stories Behind the World’s Most Famous Buildings


On March 31, the city of Paris will have reason to pat itself on the back (something new, obviously, for the home of the Louvre, the Notre Dame Cathedral, the Palace of Versailles, and some of the world’s most beautiful people). The Eiffel Tower—that spindly, conspicuous monument to modernism— will turn 125 this year, calling up memories of its controversial beginnings and admiration for its endurance as the supreme symbol of France’s capital. As with any famous building, the story behind the Eiffel Tower is almost more interesting than the structure itself. Here, we take a look at books that reveal the people, events, conflicts, and secrets behind some of the world’s most famous edifices.

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    1. Eiffel’s Tower

    Is that thing permanent?

    Any proper history of the Eiffel Tower must begin with the admission that, in the very beginning, the French were none too pleased to discover a giant needle disrupting their once-unobstructed panorama. In this “first general history” of the building, Jill Jonnes recounts the construction of the building—which dismayed many with its jarringly industrial aesthetic—and its grand reveal at the 1889 Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair). That event was peopled by an entertainingly hodgepodge group of celebrities, including Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Thomas Edison, and van Goh. (Imagine that dinner-table conversation.) At the center of the story, of course, stands Gustave Eiffel, the forward-thinking civil engineer responsible for the mad creation.

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    2. Empire

    Can’t we share?

    The Empire State Building is a globally recognized symbol of New York, and its story, as told by Mitchell Pacelle in Empire, reads like a history of the city’s greed-driven formation in miniature. Pacelle’s book chronicles the various battles over control of the Empire State Building that have marked the skyscraper since its construction. The result is a window onto the self-made men and pedigreed families—“John Raskob and Pierre du Pont alongside Donald Trump, the Helmsleys, Peter Malkin, and the eccentric Japanese billionaire Hideki Yokoi”—that have helped to shape the city and its landmarks.

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    3. The Taj Mahal

    One monument, many meanings

    Many of us are glancingly familiar with the romantic story behind the Taj Mahal’s construction: In 1632, emperor of Hindustan Shah Jahan, grieving the death of his wife, built the palace-like mausoleum in her honor. What many of us are less familiar with is the rich, and at times dark, historical context in which Jahan’s edificial gesture is nested. In this comprehensive history, Giles Tillotson tracks how the building has developed new meanings over the centuries, symbolizing at once “the undying love of a man for his wife, the perfection of Mughal architecture, the ideal synthesis of various strands of subcontinental aesthetics, [and even becoming] an icon of modern India itself.”

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    4. The Hidden White House

    Love it or list it?

    Robert Klara’s focused history of the White House centers on Harry S. Truman’s restoration of the presidential residence—“the most historically significant and politically complex home-improvement job in American history.” After engineers discovered, in 1948, that the building was on the cusp of ruin and the First Family was told they had to leave, the Trumans decided instead to rebuild it. In the process, they forever altered the face and interior of one of the United State’s most recognizable and evocative structures.

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    5. House of Outrageous Fortune

    I think this is out of our price range

    In a city that’s home to nearly 400,000 millionaires, conspicuous wealth hardly ever raises an eyebrow. But 15 Central Park West, a new limestone monolith towering over the the Columbus Circle corner of Central Park, has the kind of price point and backstory that can stop even the most glitz-numbed New Yorker in her tracks. In House of Outrageous Fortune, Michael Gross, “America’s foremost chronicler of the upper crust,” describes the ideation and construction of the outrageously-outfitted apartment building, dabbing his pages with classic high-society juice as he goes along. A building that houses Denzel Washington, Alex Rodriguez, Jeff Gordon, as well as a smattering of Russian oligarchs is, after all, bound to sprout gossip. Perhaps more interesting (or edifying, at least) is Gross’ examination of the tectonic socioeconomic shift the building represents. What does the influx of unlimited new money (much of it foreign) mean for the city’s conception of itself as a come-one-come-all repository for American society high and low? In addition to providing us with pageturner-worthy intrigue, 15 Central Park West gestures toward some answers. For a look at a far older, but just as opulent, touchstone of Manhattan real estate, look to Gross’ history of 740 Park.


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