While it took a long time for the French to fall in love with the now-iconic tower that Gustave Eiffel built for the 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris, Milwaukee quickly became enamored of the miniature version that’s long been a staple of Bastille Days at Cathedral Square Park.
Alas, when the festival opens on Thursday, July 14, the mini Eiffel Tower will be missing as it remains in storage in a Walker’s Point basement awaiting restoration, hopefully in time for next year’s festival, during which Bastille Days will celebrate its 40th anniversary in the East Town neighborhood.
“I debated for a while about how much time and resources we'd be able to devote to getting additional assessment since it's been sitting in storage since 2019 – restoration, transportation and construction,” says Eddie Sturkey, interim executive director of the East Town Association.
“As hard as it was to come to the decision, I quickly decided there wasn't enough time or resources. Hard planning for this year's festival is only occurring in four months’ time with mostly new people – myself and Events By Design assisting with production – in probably the most challenging environment you could possibly imagine.”
In addition, says Sturkey, East Town Association has, like everything else, been mostly running in place since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, which has limited its revenue.
Most years, East Town staffers would spend twice as long – eight months – planning Bastille Days. And that’s in times without labor shortages and supply chain issues.
While the Eiffel Tower has long been among the most popular attractions at Bastille Days, this is not the first time it’s been off-view and in need of restoration.
In fact, in 1999, it was replaced with an inflatable version, while restoration was taking place. That inflatable version, Sturkey says, will likely be back this year.
The 43-foot wood and steel tower – the original is 1,083 feet tall – was never meant to be permanent, much less disassembled and reassembled and put back outside for a long weekend each year.
It was initially built as part of an admittedly ambitious indoor department store display in the late 1980s, perhaps at Dayton's in Minneapolis.
It debuted at the French-themed street festival in 1989, and by 1999, it was in desperate need of repairs. So, East Town Association used the inflatable tower at the festival and called its neighbor, Milwaukee School of Engineering, for help.
Twenty-five students from the school’s Engineering and Building Construction Department spent evenings and weekends for months – January through May – rehabbing it under the guidance of Assistant Professor Fritz DeVries.
DeVries told the school magazine, Dimensions, that it was fun working out how the 50 parts of the tower fit together. “The students reinforced the steel and added 10,000 pounds to the base for stabilization,” the magazine noted. “Then came the paint ... lots of paint.”
The revamped tower debuted at the 2000 festival and quickly resumed its position as a meeting and gathering point and photo op for fest-goers.
In 2015, the mini Eiffel was reassembled in front of City Hall as a gesture of support for France in the wake of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks. Four years later, after the festival’s run, the ailing tower was put in storage and MSOE was again called.
According to a 2019 assessment undertaken by the school, “the next round of repairs should focus on the small legs that attach above the platform. There is extensive rot of plywood that affects the connection to the platform and broken lattice pieces.”
However, the work required is much more extensive. The assessment report suggests repairs to or replacement of the top of the tower, the straight shaft, the pyramidal shaft, side trusses, main legs, box feet and platform, too. Sacre bleu, that’s pretty much every bit of the thing.
There is talk of replacement, but, says Sturkey, that’s an expensive option.
“In 2018, East Town Association, Inc. did reach out to Milwaukee Blacksmith, Inc. for an estimate to fabricate a 42-foot replica which came at a cost of around $70,000 and would likely cost more after additional lighting attachments,” he says.
“I would assume that number would be quite a bit larger today. So I'm guessing an eventual replacement down the road would come at a cost of around $100,000 or more.”
In the meantime, fundraising has begun – runners in this year’s popular Storm the Bastille 5k and others can make donations – and after this year’s festival is over Sturkey will discuss restoration possibilities with MSOE.
“We have an active fundraiser going on our Storm the Bastille registration site, from which we've currently only raised around $1,700 of an initial $20,000 request,” Sturkey says. “The cost of restoration could end up being quite a bit more, assuming we can restore and won't have to replace it right away.
“MSOE has already reached out to partner again in restoring the existing Eiffel Tower. Hopefully we'll be able to have it back in time for 2023's 40th anniversary!”
The challenges that East Town faces are real, however, and the Eiffel Tower is only the most visible example, Sturkey says.
“Our organization could really use more donations beyond even just that for the Eiffel Tower to ensure we can keep bringing back, and improving Bastille Days,” he says. “Bastille Days, up until recently, has been known as one of the largest free public street festivals in the county, funded solely by beverage and vendor sales, sponsorships, run registration and donations.
“We regularly get calls from French organizations all over the country who are looking at Milwaukee's Bastille Days for inspiration in starting up their own festival in their city. I personally view Bastille Days more and more as not just a French cultural festival, but as the ‘People's Festival’ of Milwaukee as we try to leverage local musical talent and local street performers, we're free to the public, and we have lots of volunteer opportunities.”
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.