|print from the collection of the Library of Congress
Frank Winfield Woolworth worked on his parents’ farm in Great Bend, New York until he was 21 years old. During his last two winters on the farm, when chores were fewer, he worked in a grocery store in town for free, telling the owner he simply wanted the experience.
When he finally left home he ventured off to Watertown, New York, where he convinced the owner of the dry goods store Augsbury & Moore to allow him to work free for three months, after which he received $3.50 a week; the exact amount he was paying for his room at a boarding house. By 1878 the 26-year old was earning $10 a week.
It was that year that the store in Watertown where he was working installed a revolutionary marketing concept: a five-cent counter. Woolworth took the idea farther.
A year later he opened his first store in Utica, New York with $350 worth of goods purchased on a note endorsed by his father. The store failed, but Woolworth was undaunted. By 1911 there were 596 F. W. Woolworth stores and Woolworth had become an extremely wealthy man by selling goods priced at five or ten cents.
In 1910 Woolworth began planning a new headquarters building. His initial thoughts of a typical 12- to 16-story office building gradually changed until it would become the tallest building in the world. In the summer of 1911, for about $2.5 million, Woolworth acquired the corner lot at Broadway and Park Place and commissioned Cass Gilbert – known for monumental public buildings like the Minnesota State Capitol building—to design his new headquarters.
Initial plans called for a 55-story building. Even before the addition of five more stories, not everyone was pleased. One reader of The New York Times who signed his letter simply H. P wrote “But is it wise, or even safe, for the city to longer neglect the subject of limiting the height of buildings? Fifty-five stories now—what next? And yet, it seems I have already heard mention of a ‘next.’”
Woolworth was fond of the London’s Gothic-style Houses of Parliament and this admiration probably played an important part in the style of the new skyscraper. Referring to Woolworth’s input, Gilbert later said “Mr. Woolworth loved beautiful architecture and earnestly desired that his building should be noted for its beauty as well as for its practical convenience and substantial construction.”
Mr. Woolworth would get from Cass Gilbert both beautiful architecture and substantial construction.
To support the immense structure, estimated to weigh 136,000 tons, 69 concrete piers extended 100 feet down to bedrock. The construction of the foundation alone cost $1.2 million.
|A billboard announces the coming skyscraper as caissons are driven deep into the earth for the foundation in 1911 photo from the collection of the Library of Congress.
On the night of April 24, 1913 President Wilson pressed a button in the White House and 80,000 electric lights in the Woolworth Building flashed on. The building was completed. In the 27th-floor dining room Woolworth hosted a banquet for journalists, business moguls and politicians. Outside, the tower was bathed in light; an early example of architectural illumination.
|The six-story tower had dozens of gargoyles -- photo "The Cathedral of Commerce" 1913
The 60-story skyscraper, which cost Woolworth $13 million, was a marvel. It was clad in gleaming white terra cotta, cast in elaborate Gothic shapes – finials, gargoyles, spires and intricate tracery. Two decades later the WPA’s New York City Guide would say “Crisp and delicate terra-cotta surface ornament drops over the building like a veil. All the details are Gothic, even to the tourelles that surround the peak, the finial that surmounts it, and the flying buttresses.”
|The main entrance doors on Broadway are dwarfed within the enormous Gothic arch -- photo "The Cathedral of Commerce" 1913
The architectural details of the tower, 792 feet and one inch above the sidewalk, were over-sized so as to be visible from the street and to maintain proportions. Edwin Cochran noted later that year “the proportions have been executed with such studious care and fidelity to detail that its enormous height is not realized from the street.”
|Not all of Gilbert's details were traditionally Gothic. Here he gives a nod to American history -- photo Library of Congress
Inside, Gilbert lavished the lobby with creamy marble quarried on the Isle of Skyros in Greece. The Gothic curves and arches of the grand corridor rose to the glass-mosaic domed ceiling. The glass was illuminated by concealed lights in the lacy carved marble cornice. Gilbert playfully represented real people in the grotesques below the cornice—the architect himself was represented holding a model of the building, Woolworth has a bag of nickels, engineer Aus holds a steel beam, and rental agent Frank Hogan, building Louis Horowitz and banker Lewis Pierson were also portrayed.
|The architect portrayed himself holding a model of the building in a marble grotesque -- photo Library of Congress
Woolworth leased out much of the building where 12,000 workers would come and go every day. The Irving National Bank and the Broadway Trust Company occupied the first floor. In the basement were the “Postkeller,” a restaurant with frescoed, vaulted ceilings; an enormous barber shop; a Turkish bath and swimming pool.
|In the basement was The Postkeller, where patrons dined beneath frescoed ceilings -- "The Cathedral of Commerce" 1913
But the Woolworth offices were dazzling.
Frank Woolworth’s private office was decorated in the Renaissance period. A Flemish Renaissance tapestry woven around 1650 hung over a velvet-covered bench raised on a platform a step higher than the floor. A carved stone Italian Renaissance mantelpiece filled the height of the room at one end and an elaborate coffered ceiling hung over Woolworth’s centuries-old desk.
|Frank Woolworth's private office is still intact today -- photo "The Cathedral of Commerce" 1913
The President’s office was referred to as “The Empire Room.” The walls were executed in various colors of marble. Period French furniture was complemented by an enormous portrait of Napoleon.
|The walls of the office of the President of the firm were of several types of marble -- "The Cathedral of Commerce" 1913
The Otis Elevator Company quickly used the building in its marketing scheme. Ads boasted of “The marvelous vertical railways in the new Woolworth Building that are to ‘whiz’ the army of workers up with lightning speed 726 feet in the sky in absolute safety and comfort.” In fact, safety was a major consideration of Woolworth when planning the elevators and he was personally involved. Two of the elevators, which ran from the lobby to the 54th floor, were the fastest elevators in the world, traveling at 700 feet per minute.
|Astonishing detail went into the facade -- photo NYC-Architecture.com
A messy law suit was filed two months after the building opened. The building managers, Broadway-Park Place Company, had given a monopoly to the Virginia Bear Water Company to supply drinking water to the tenants. When some tenants like the Friesdedt Underpinning Company chose to buy from the Pine Hill Crystal Spring Company instead they were forbidden to use the elevators to transport the five-gallon bottles. Office workers were forced to carry the bottles from two to thirty-seven flights of stairs.
F. W. Woolworth died on April 8, 1919, one of the wealthiest men in the country. His obituary stated “The Woolworth fortune, which was built out of nickels and dimes, is estimated at $65,000,000.”
Because Woolworth owned the building outright, his heirs were assessed inheritance tax of $3 million on the property. In June 1920 they obtained a mortgage in that amount—the first mortgage carried on the building—from the Prudential Life Insurance Company of Newark. Four years later the F. W. Woolworth Company obtained ownership.
It was not until January 16, 1931 that Cass Gilbert received the gold medal of the Society of Arts and Sciences for designing the Woolworth Building. During the awards dinner, he was recognized as “the prophet of a new and great movement in architecture.” President of the society, artist Walter Russell said “He forever destroyed the groveling power of the horizontal line and replaced it with the spiritual uplift of the perpendicular…He was the forerunner of the new space-time, air-conscious age in which architecture took the lead.”
The Work Progress Administration's New York City Guide in 1939 would echo the sentiment. “The Woolworth Building was a genuine contribution to the development of the American skyscraper style. It represents one of the earliest attempts to express the steel-frame structure—a departure from the ‘immobility of mass and weight of masonry’ that characterized the classic type of building.”
Thomas E. Dewey established his offices here and, when he began his investigation into racketeering and organized crime in Manhattan, things got lively. Dewey’s offices housed extensive files on mobsters as well as the identities of informants and witnesses. Other office workers on the floor became accustomed to seeing police officers assigned to the hallway outside Dewey’s offices 24 hours a day.
In April 1970 the Landmarks Preservation Commission held a hearing in an attempt to designate the Woolworth Building a landmark. The Woolworth Company’s attorney, Kenneth W. Greenawait, attacked the proposed designation saying that the landmark law was “onerous and discriminatory.” The owner, he said, is “discriminated against, effectively deprived of rights of possession without compensation, and thus denied equal protection of the law.”
Still, in 1977 the Woolworth Company initiated a restoration program to repair the badly weathered and deteriorating terra cotta. A detailed inspection revealed that there were no structural problems and that only the cladding needed attention. In the course of restoration, all 4,400 windows were replaced with aluminum, energy efficient replicas.
Terra cotta elements were duplicated in cast stone and fiberglass; upwards of one-third of the original material.
|A stained glass ceiling panel can be seen in the corridor just past the masterful glass mosaic dome in the lobby -- photo by PAT M IN NYC
The magnificent Woolworth Building was finally designated a New York City landmark in April 1983. Seventy years earlier, upon the building’s completion, Edwin Cochran said of it “The Woolworth Building has been called ‘A Cathedral of Commerce’—a monument to small things, but it is even more—it is the colossal and enduring gift to civilization of a true-born, patriotic American, Frank W. Woolworth, and it stands unique in the history of great buildings through the world.”