10 Famous Landmarks That Were Almost Destroyed


Some of the world’s most famous architectural treasures are so iconic, they can seem indestructible. The forces of nature and humanity have proved otherwise throughout history, and despite the (sometimes numerous) assaults, some of the most beloved have managed to beautifully weather the storm.


The Eiffel Tower—possibly the most iconic Parisian landmark—was almost never even constructed at all. According to PBS, the public protested the structure before it was built, concerned over both the cost and fears that it would be an eyesore on the city skyline. It was eventually completed in 1889 and was meant to serve only as a temporary fixture that would be dismantled after 20 years. But its value as a radiotelegraph station ended up saving it from such destruction—until World War II, when the threat popped up yet again.

According to the Nazi commander in charge when Paris was taken, General Dietrich von Choltitz, he was instructed by Adolf Hitler to destroy Paris, including the Eiffel Tower. Thankfully, he disobeyed those orders (though some historians doubt the entire story). Although Parisians had initially protested the Eiffel Tower, the monument had become beloved, and as the city tried to defend the tower against the Nazis, with French resistance fighters cutting the elevator cables so the Germans had to use the stairs for radio communications or hanging the Nazi flag during their occupation of the city. Hitler opted out of scaling the 1710 steps. 


Both an earthquake and a 19th century political groundswell have tried and failed to fell the Washington Monument. On August 23, 2011, a 5.8-magnitude earthquake left numerous cracks in the tower. No one was hurt during the quake, but the landmark was closed for repairs for almost three years

Well before that (over 150 years before, in fact), an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant political party known as the Know-Nothings had tried to prevent the monument from being built. While it was under construction in 1854, the group—known for their anti-immigration views—stole a stone that was donated by Pope Pius IX and the Vatican to help decorate the inside of the monument. The rock, which was ultimately dumped into the Potomac River, was originally from ruins of the Temple of Concord in Rome. Decades later, one of the perpetrators came forward to offer this explanation: "There was a good deal of speaking going on about the shame of having a stone from any king or potentate inserted in the monument of a man who had found against royal tyranny, and finally it was agreed that nine men should be selected by lot to destroy the stone."

The following year, the Know-Nothings gained control of the Washington National Monument Society through an illegal election and subsequently bankrupted it, having added only a few courses of inferior marble that were later removed. Construction on the monument was ultimately halted for 20 years, and when they resumed they began using marble from a different quarry, a change that is visible to this day in the monument's two-tone stone coloring


The Colosseum is among the best-known structures in the world, despite the fact that two thirds of it has been destroyed. After its creation during the 1st century CE, the landmark was hit by a devastating lightning strike in 217, which consequently ignited the wooden floor of the arena. The Colosseum was again struck by lightning in 320, though thankfully it didn't catch fire the second time around. 

In addition to nature's elements, humans also contributed to the destruction of the Colosseum over the years. In the 6th century, following the fall of the Roman Empire, the landmark was pillaged for building materials. It wasn't until the 18th century when Pope Benedict XIV consecrated the Colosseum as a church, that the slow demolition stopped.


If you need any proof that St Paul’s Cathedral and Buckingham Palace are structurally sound, look no further than the London Blitz of World War II. The city was attacked 71 times in 267 days, causing significant damage. Buckingham Palace was struck by seven bombs, while 10 other blasts hit St Paul’s Cathedral, leaving the buildings damaged though both survived. In September 1940, the Cathedral was also hit by a time-delayed bomb that would have leveled it were it not defused by the Royal Engineers. 


The Taj Mahal is an enduring symbol of love, but it has had its share of threats since the 18th century. It was rumored (and since largely disproved) that in 1830, the Taj Mahal was almost demolished under the orders of the British Governor of India, Lord William Bentinck, who planned to auction off the marble to the British upper-class. While that threat may have been unfounded, subsequent neglect and vandalizing by British soldiers and government officials was all too real. They pillaged precious stones and lapis lazuli from the walls during the Indian rebellion of 1857. A massive restoration project ordered by British viceroy Lord Curzon eventually helped to bring this wonder of the world back to its former grandeur. 


During World War II, the American military suspected that the Germans were using the Tower of Pisa as an observation post. Leon Weckstein, a 23-year-old U.S. solider, was tasked with the dangerous mission of getting as close to the tower as possible to see if it was indeed occupied. On his order—“This is Able George One. Fire.”—America would have opened fire on the monument. In his book, Through My Eyes: 91st Infantry Division in the Italian Campaign (Hellgate Memories World War II), Weckstein credits the beauty of the building and his own fear (as well as the hot air that was making it tough to see) for not giving the order.


The Sphinx has suffered its own fair share of neglect in the 4500 years since it was built. The monument was so unattended to that it was almost completely submerged in sand. Only the head remained uncovered, earning the nickname the “Father of Terror” from uneasy locals. The Sphinx went through cycles of being neglected and retrieved for years until it was finally excavated between 1925 and 1936.

Of course, the famous riddler is also noted for its missing beard and nose. According to Smithsonian, one unverified story claims a Sufi Muslim named Muhammad Sa'im al-Dahr destroyed the nose in the 14th century in retaliation for people making offerings to the Sphinx. He was reportedly later executed for the vandalism. 


As far as bad years go, 1814 was a brutal one for the White House. During the War of 1812, the British invaded the presidential residence, ransacking and then setting it on fire. Twenty-six hours after the attack, as many as three tornados hit Washington, D.C., driving away British troops with its torrential winds and rain and putting out the fires across the city. President James Madison never moved back into the partially destroyed White House.


Practically speaking, the Cologne Cathedral should have been leveled on May 30, 1942. The German city was under attack by the Royal Air Force and was ultimately struck by a total of 1500 metric tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs. The New York Times calculates this as one bomb every other second for a full 90 minutes. When the siege was over, more than 5000 fires burned around the city and 474 people had been killed. Amid the chaos, the Cologne Cathedral remained standing—remarkably suffering only superficial damage.


This integral New York City transportation hub was almost demolished, not in dramatic fashion like others on this list, but simply because the building’s owner, New York Central Railroad, didn’t think it was worth preserving. Beginning in 1954, multiple proposals were put forth to replace or modify Grand Central Terminal (including what is now known as the Met Life building), but were all shot down.

Grand Central earned landmark status in 1967, but that didn't keep the threats from coming. In 1975 the New York State Supreme Court ruled to overturn the status, and former First Lady Jackie Kennedy Onassis stepped in to help prevent significant changes or demolition. Onassis wrote a plea to Mayor Abraham Beame, saying: “Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children?” In 1978, the United States Supreme Court ruled to preserve the landmark status.

All photos courtesy of iStock