Let's free associate: Paris, lovers, springtime, chestnut blossoms, couples kissing in a sidewalk cafe. The City of Light evokes vivid images like that, but none is more enduring than that of the Eiffel Tower, which turns 100 years old this month.

The tower built by Alexandre Gustave Eiffel has become the most beloved of French landmarks, but it was not always so.In fact, back in 1887, people living around the tower work site were appalled by the "giant and disgraceful skeleton." Engineers warned it would collapse and a lawsuit tried to halt construction. A newspaper headline exclaimed, "The Tower Is Sinking."

But La Tour Eiffel (Eiffel Tower in French) soared aove it all, surviving to become the definitive symbol of Paris.

"It's true, the public was a little mistrusting in the beginning, they were afraid and fought the tower," said Janine Yiatman, Eiffel's great granddaughter.

But Parisians, it seems, understand the human need for the superfluous. The tower constructed at the entrance to the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition on the the Seine River across from the Trocadero survived as a filigree iron homage to the industrial revolution and a reflection of the innocence and prosperity of the Belle Epoch.

On March 31, performers in period dress will re-enact Eiffel's walk up the tower staircase 100 years before, marking the end of construction.

At 1:30 p.m. that blustery spring day in 1889, Eiffel and a few others climbed to the top and unfurled the French tricolor emblazoned with the gold initials "R.F." (Republique Francaise).

"He was very proud of the tower," said Mrs. Yiatman, now 75, who vividly remembers two visits she made with her great-grandfather to his office on the tower's third and highest level.

"We walked part of the way. Even at 90, he loved to walk. He was very lively, very impressive with his white hair and animated interest in everything," she said.

"He was right. It's a beautiful place to walk, up there the air is so pure. He loved his tower, he loved me and he enjoyed showing it to me and my friends."

Eiffel had a right to be proud. He had built what was then the tallest structure ever made by man. The tower rose nearly 1,000 feet up from its 2.5- acre base. It required 9,700 tons of pig iron, 2.5 million rivets and 40 tons of paint.

Despite its height, Eiffel's tower sways no more than 4.5 inches in strong winds, distributing its weight so elegantly that its four legs exert no more pressure on the ground per centimeter than a man sitting in a four-legged chair.

All of this he accomplished in two years, two months and two days with a crew of only 200 men - and he kept within his $1.6-million budget.

Building the 555-foot-tall Washington Monument, in contrast, took 36 years.

"I should be jealous of the tower," Eiffel once said shortly before his death in 1923. "It's more famous than I am."

Eiffel was 53 years old when his design was selected from 120 others by a government wanting to build a monument expressing the country's recovery from a humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and its achievements in the industrial age a mere 100 years after the French Revolution.

An exhibit at the tower, which will run through September, tells the story of the tower's origin and explores the life of the masterful engineer who wielded iron in entirely new ways.

Eiffel designed locks for the Panama Canal and crafted the internal iron skeleton using cross bracing for the Statue of Liberty. He built bridges worldwide using a system of pilings that could support tons of metal and concrete at unprecedented heights.

Eiffel employed these same techniques in creating his ladder to the sky.

Since World War I, the tower has served as a radio and meteorological post and recently was fitted with television broadcasting equipment. But its utilitarian value is secondary to its role as a beautiful perch.

More than 123 million people have gone up to have a look around in the past 100 years and the view has never failed to incite the imagination.

One man tried to fly from it and was killed when his wings failed. In 1923 a bicycle-riding journalist careened down the steps from the top floor to the ground. A moutaineer scaled it in 1954 and in 1984 two Englishmen parachuted from it.

A New Zealand man jumped headfirst from the tower's second level with an elastic cord tied around his feet in 1987 - and bounced back.

He wanted to bring the sport of "bungy jumping" to Paris and felt the tower was the right place to do it.