This Week In History: March 27 – April 2

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First drawing of the Eiffel Tower by Maurice Koechlin including size comparison with other Parisian landmarks such as Notre Dame de Paris, the Statue of Liberty and the Vendôme Column. Photo courtesy of Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nouguier/Wikimedia Commons

Happy spring, everyone! Though it may not feel like it, spring has sprung and greener pastures will soon be upon us. To celebrate, This Week in History is throwing out the old and bringing in the new — well, not exactly, this is still a history column, after all. But in the spirit of new life and the return of color to the bleak gray hills of Storrs, Conn., we will be celebrating a few moments in history where people rejoiced at the exciting scenic changes around them. So let’s dive in! 

On March 31, 1889, 133 years ago, the Eiffel Tower was unveiled in Paris, France.  

What’s springtime without romance and what’s romance without the City of Love? 

In honor of the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, the French government planned the 20-year-long Paris International Exposition, with Gustave Eiffel’s Tower as the festival’s centerpiece. 

While Eiffel may be a household name in the 21st century, his victory in the nationwide architectural competition, cemented a mere rising stardom in the young architect’s career. The biggest project on his resume thus far was the skeleton of New York Harbor’s new Statue of Liberty. 

With the help of 200 construction workers, Eiffel’s vision was brought to life in his hometown, standing as the world’s tallest manmade structure for more than 40 years. 

The tower was originally intended to be torn down following the end of the city’s exposition, with a large percentage of Parisians protesting its brash modernity amidst the tidy neoclassical city. The monument, however, became so tied to the city’s image and proved so effective as a radio antenna that it was kept. Today, the Eiffel Tower is one of the most visited attractions worldwide, and the undisputed symbol of both Paris and the entire nation of France. 

Visitors in a cherry grove on the National Mall, April 5, 2009. These cherry blossom trees are commemorated annually during the National Cherry Blossom Festival. Photo courtesy of Vcelloho/Wikimedia Commons

On March 27, 1912, 110 years ago, Japanese cherry trees were planted along the banks of the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. 

While New England may boast a modestly scenic spring, spring is D.C.’s time to shine. The more than 3,000 cherry trees that dot the National Mall have come to be the staple centerpiece of our nation’s capital. Simple and dignified, it’s hard to imagine a D.C. spring without the bright pink of the cherry blossom petals on the banks of the Potomac.  

These trees, as scenic as they are, are not exactly native to the Chesapeake region, having traveled thousands of miles before taking root. Eliza Scidmore, a wealthy, well-traveled Washington socialite, was the first to put the cherry blossom tree on her wish list, sending countless letters to several U.S. presidents, pleading for the plant to be brought to her hometown after a luxurious tour of the East Asian coast. First lady Helen Taft, who lived in Japan while her husband was stationed in the Philippines, answered Scidmore’s letters. The duo launched a beautification campaign in the capital city, and Japanese diplomats in New York heard Mrs. Taft’s pleas, alerting their bosses in Tokyo. 

The Japanese government sent 3,020 cherry trees to the U.S. government, all of which were planted in a 1912 ceremony featuring Mrs. Taft herself and the Japanese ambassador’s wife, the Viscountess Chinda, cementing an international friendship that lasted until — you guessed it — 1941. 

Fun fact: This shipment was actually a replacement of the first batch sent two years prior. Mrs. Taft originally received 2,000 trees, yet soon after planting, landscapers discovered the trees were infested with insects and parasitic worms — all of which needed to be burned. Thankfully, the Japanese took no ill will after the U.S. president ordered the incineration of their thoughtful gift. 

More than a century later, the cherry blossoms have endured and become a piece of D.C. history, commemorated annually in the National Cherry Blossom Festival which began last week. 

Happy spring to all, and to all a good week! 

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