April 25, 1913- The Woolworth Building
When I lived in New York City in the 1970s, I didn’t know anyone who lived below 12th street. On occasion, I would go to the Financial District at 5pm and watch the Wall Street men in suits leaving work and heading off for cocktails. I had dreams of marrying a successful stockbroker, but I kept falling in love with artists.
The Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway on the island of Manhattan is one of my most-loved structures on our pretty planet. I have been in and around it many times. I took The Husband on our first visit to NYC in the 1990s. He found the ornate, cruciform lobby to be breathtaking. It is covered in veined marble with a vaulted ceiling, mosaics, stained-glass ceiling lights and bronze fittings. Over the balconies are murals with a theme of Labor and Commerce, the architect, Cass Gilbert (1859-1934) with a model of the building, workmen taking the girder’s measurements, and a gargoyle of Mr. F. W. Woolworth (1892 – 1919) counting nickels.
Woolworth was the founder of a brand of popular five-and-ten-cent stores, with more than 1000 around the country. Gilbert was an early proponent of skyscrapers, who also designed the Minnesota, Arkansas and West Virginia State Capitols; and the United States Supreme Court building. His public buildings reflect the optimistic American sense that the nation was heir to Greek democracy, Roman law and Renaissance humanism. He served as president of the American Institute of Architects in 1908–09. His design of the Supreme Court building (1935), with its classical lines and small size, contrasted sharply with the large, blocky federal buildings going up along the National Mall in Washington, D.C., which he disliked.
The construction took more than three years, a process that involved hundreds of workers, with daily wages that ranged from $1.50 for laborers to $4.50 for skilled craftsman. The steel beams and girders used in the framework weighed so much that, in order to prevent the streets from caving-in, a group of surveyors examined the streets on the route along which the beams would be transported. Steel for the building was provided by the American Bridge Company from their foundries in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and took over 45 weeks to manufacture.
The Woolworth Building’s neo-Gothic tower is one of NYC’s most recognizable landmarks, but, of course, in the 21st century, it is luxury condominiums for the super-rich, a transformation that would be second only to placing penthouses atop my other favorite structures: The Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building. The $110 million price tag for the building’s penthouse unit is the highest ever paid for an apartment in downtown Manhattan. As of April 2019, only three of the building’s 31 condos have been sold since the developers refused to discount prices despite a glut of new luxury apartments in New York City. Here’s a link to the remaining units, in case you’re looking for a place in the city.
It is now pitched as ”The Mozart Of Skyscrapers” by the owners and that’s not far off. The world’s tallest building when it opened in 1913, the Woolworth Building was then called the ”Cathedral Of Commerce”, its copper sphered tower soars 792 feet into the skyline. It was designed to resemblance the great European Gothic cathedrals such as the much-loved and lamented Notre Dame in Paris. By the 1920s, the building had more than a thousand different tenants, who collectively employed over 12,000 people who worked within the building.
When it opened on this day, April 24, in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson turned the lights on by way of a button in Washington, D.C. that evening. A gala dinner and dancing event was held on the building’s 27th floor with over 900 guests.
It remained the tallest building in the world until the construction of 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building in 1930; an observation deck on the 57th floor attracted visitors until 1941. In 1983, the NY Landmarks Preservation Commission revisited the building and granted landmark protection to its exterior and facade.
Prior to the September 11 attacks, the World Trade Center was often photographed in such a way that the Woolworth Building could be seen between the two towers. After the attacks occurred a few blocks away, the building was without electricity, water and telephone service for a few weeks and had broken windows and a damaged top turret due to falling rubble.
In the 1970s, I used to just help myself to poking around in the Woolworth Building’s lobby, mezzanines, and the offices for Columbia Records. Now, you can only see it by private tour.
Photos via Wikimedia Commons