Most of us only know a country by its buildings: When somebody says "Egypt," we think of the pyramids, and when they say "Russia," we picture those buildings with the towers shaped like onions. There is this very elite class of buildings so iconic that they transcend the country that built them. So it's kind of weird how often we almost let the things get destroyed.
#5. The Eiffel Tower
If Paris ever lost the Eiffel Tower, how would anyone ever know they were in Paris? We've seen movies -- every single scene that takes place there has to include the tower in the background as a cue to the audience. Judging from movies, Paris is just the Eiffel Tower and, like, three cafes.
Yet, once the Eiffel Tower was completed in 1889, many a Parisian gazed up at its majesty and moaned about how much they hated the huge, shitty eyesore, the towering metal monstrosity despoiling their precious Parisian skyline as if the Earth had spawned a robotic erection to fuck a cloud. Famed writer Guy de Maupassant was known to often eat lunch in the restaurant in the tower -- not because he liked the food, but because that was the only place in Paris from which he couldn't see the tower. It was even repainted orange to make it look better at one point, because nothing says "beauty and elegance" like an enormous safety cone.
Via Wikimedia Commons
And death rays. Death rays are key.
But the detractors knew that they wouldn't have to put up with it for too long, because the tower was only a temporary construction, planned to be demolished after 20 years.
That's right: When Gustave Eiffel designed the tower, he had to abide by the rules of the "build a huge freaking thing" contest for the 1889 World's Fair (the only reason the tower was built), with one of the stipulations being that it could easily be torn down when the city of Paris got the land back from a 20-year lease. So Eiffel ordered up a metric shit-ton of the cheapest iron he could get his hands on, tinker-toyed it up into the tallest structure the world had ever seen and said, "Eh, that looks like it should last at least 20 years."
"It's just a giant tower in a highly populated city. No need for any safety precautions."
The tower turned out to be the big hit of the exposition, which temporarily quieted its detractors, but when 1909 rolled around and the demolition date loomed, they renewed their harrumphing with a fervor -- they were just itching to finally be rid of the ugly thing. And it looked like they were going to have their way, right up until Eiffel grasped onto a newfangled invention in the hopes that it would help extend the life of his brainchild: radio.
Eiffel had this wild idea that radio seemed like it could become the next big communications device. And since radios needed a tall place to send long-range messages, the world's most hated -- but tallest -- structure seemed like an ideal spot for a radio tower. And it was: Eiffel stuck a radio transmitter at the top of the tower and offered it to the French Ministry of War as a communications base, enabling their messages to make it all the way across the English Channel. With war quickly building up with Germany and Italy, the radio proved to be a useful wartime instant messaging system.
"It's the Lunchtime Request Hour. Call in some Skynyrd!"
So the radio became the tower's saving grace, and just five years later, it proved to be well worth saving when it became the key transmission point to jam German radio communications, stalling their advance just north of Paris. From then on, the Eiffel Tower has stayed put, with the last serious attempt to dismantle it being in 1967, when a crazed Montreal mayor thought it would be the perfect thing to "borrow" for the World's Fair. But the tower remained, saving many a Hollywood production from having to print the word "Paris" on the screen every time the city is shown.
#4. The White House
Since John Adams first took up residence in it in 1800, the White House in Washington, D.C., has been nearly burned down by British pyromancers, as well as expanded and restored countless times, sometimes looking more battered than Joe Pesci at the end of Casino. But the building has always stood strong as one of the most everlasting symbols of the United States. Except that time it almost collapsed when Harry Truman was in office.
In the late 1940s, Truman and his family began to notice some quirky things about their new home. Like the fact that entire floors swayed when they walked on them. Or how the ceiling would sag down toward the floor, while the floor in turn creaked and groaned to complain about it. You know, the type of things a real estate agent would refer to as "charm." But when a piano nearly fell through the ceiling and Truman's own bedroom and bathroom were sealed off because they were structurally unsafe, Truman decided that maybe it was time to do something about it. So he called in some inspectors to check it out, and the news wasn't good: The White House was on the verge of collapse. According to one inspector, the second floor was only staying up by "force of habit."
The White House in 1941, after the Great Wetness.
It turns out that during the Depression and World War II, the money that normally would have gone into keeping the president's house upright was instead diverted into keeping people from starving and blowing people up, respectively. And when Franklin Delano Roosevelt and others complained about the increasing problems, they were presumably told to suck it up and quit being such babies -- the nation had bigger fish to fry. That, plus years of constantly drilling holes into walls for phone, gas, water and power lines had weakened the building to the point that living in it was like living in a house of sticks, just begging for some asshole wolf to happen by and blow it down. Add in a third floor shoddily renovated by Calvin Coolidge and a brand new balony put in by Truman that threw the whole damn thing off kilter, and the White House was ready to cry uncle.
"I want it rebuilt in the shape of a dong or a middle finger. Or a giant dongfinger."
So Truman kicked off what we now refer to as the "Truman reconstruction," a massive four-year project during which the entire interior of the building -- everything but the brick outer shell -- was completely demolished and rebuilt. In other words, to keep the building from falling in on itself, they had to do this:
When you're allowed to drive a bulldozer inside the building, that's usually not a good sign.
Meaning that if you manage to make it through the 12 security checkpoints and three full anal strip searches necessary to tour the building today, much of what you're seeing is sort of like a Hollywood-style remake, filmed nearly 150 years after the original. But the upside is that you're much less likely to die by a Roger Rabbit-style piano drop.
#3. The Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Leaning Tower of Pisa is only famous because its builders were fuckups -- due to an inadequate foundation set in unstable soil, the tower has been slowly tilting perilously closer and closer to nervous ground-based tourists ever since its construction in the 1100s. And on multiple occasions, it came damn close to becoming the Horizontal Tower of Pisa.
Perhaps the closest the tower has ever come to toppling was when the Allies almost gave it some explosive assistance toward the end of World War II. Allied troops advancing on Pisa couldn't figure out how the Germans were managing to stop every attempted advance with such accuracy on such flat terrain -- until someone realized that the Germans had the perfect vantage point in the form of the giant structure jutting up out of the otherwise smooth landscape ("Wait, is that some kind of leaning tower? In Pisa? Why did no one tell us about this?"). The Allied advance came to such a standstill that the top brass decided that, history and culture be damned, they were going to give gravity a hand by simply blowing that fucker over.
Or maybe just sending a few guys to push on the side.
A lone Army sergeant by the name of Leon Weckstein was tasked with the job of calling in an artillery strike on the tower. Weckstein approached to within three quarters of a mile of it, but when he surveyed the full length of the tower through his telescope, he was overwhelmed by its grace and beauty. When he raised the radio to his mouth to call the strike, the words just wouldn't come out. The tower had been spared by a single soldier with a soft spot in his heart for Romanesque architecture and the postcard industry.
But even after the tower's narrow escape from becoming a war casualty, there was still that whole leaning thing to worry about. It turns out that, surprise surprise, a building that's slowly headed for inevitable collapse is not exactly the best thing, and by 1990 the tower was leaning at a 5.5-degree angle and was closed off to the public for the first time ever. When an expert said that the tower could collapse "at any moment," that's when Italy decided that something had to be done about it immediately -- "immediately" being government-speak for "nine years later."
"Oh, that old thing? Can't you just stick a car jack under it or something?"
But even with all their dillydallying, they still managed to beat gravity to the punch and, with a series of gigantic weights, brought the tower back up to just under a 4-degree angle, improving it so much that by 2008 it had stopped moving altogether. Of course, they can't just correct it to be straight again, because then the entire town would vanish off the map.
The "stack a bunch of shit on it" method, commonly used to fix leaning towers worldwide.