The Woolworth Building – “Cathedral of Commerce”

  • Location: Broadway b/t. Barclay St and Park Pl
  • Built: 1913
  • Architect: Cass Gilbert
  • Height: 792 feet
  • Stories: 57

The Woolworth Building became the tallest in the world in 1913 and kept that distinction for the next 17 years. In 2013, 100 years after its construction, it still stood remarkably as one of the twenty tallest buildings in New York City.

The Woolworth Building, a spectacular neo-Gothic edifice, was designed by Cass Gilbert, one of the most prominent American architects. Tall and delicately ornate, with its gorgeous gilded lobby featuring gargoyles portraying Gilbert holding the model of the Woolworth and Woolworth himself counting coins, the structure was dubbed the “Cathedral of Commerce” during its opening ceremony. At the opening, President Woodrow Wilson pressed a button in the White House that made 80,000 lights instantly flash throughout the Woolworth Building, celebrating the completion of the world’s highest skyscraper. Besides the ornate lobby (which looked more like a church than an entrance to an office building) with its vaulted ceiling, mosaics, and sculpted medieval-style caricatures, the Woolworth was home to Mr. Woolworth’s private office on the 40th floor, modeled after that of Napoleon.

Mr. Woolworth was the owner of a multi-million dollar chain of nickel-and-dime stores, a concept he himself invented. The ideas which seem so obvious today were actually quite revolutionary back then: sell cheap but in high quantities, and let the merchandise be available for customers’ perusal. Eliminating an intimidating store clerk and allowing people to browse through and touch merchandise made shoppers buy more! To keep clients in his store longer, Woolworth installed a lunch counter — another innovation that kept customers lingering in the store longer and eventually buying more stuff. When Woolworth became successful and very wealthy, he decided to erect a building so unique that mail could be addressed simply “Woolworth Building, New York.” 

The Woolworth was constructed in 1913 at the staggering cost of 13.5 million paid in cash! There are different stories regarding “why”: either Mr. Woolworth didn’t believe in credit, or he couldn’t get it. But the fact remains a fact — for most of the twentieth century the building didn’t hold a mortgage — something unheard of for such a large commercial structure.

The Woolworth towered over the world from 1913 until 1930, when 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building rose even higher. The Woolworth originally stole the title from the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, which had reigned as the world’s tallest since 1909. Up until 1945 visitors could climb to the Woolworth’s 58th floor to enjoy a view of the city from the observation deck. Now that the edifice is continuing its life as a luxury condo, it is off-limits to tourists. The apartments in the Woolworth are referred to as “residences” and carry a price tag ranging from 3 to 30 million. As for the famous observation deck, it can now be enjoyed by the owners of a five-story penthouse called The Pinnacle, currently on sale for $79 million.

No longer among the tallest in the world, it is nevertheless one magnificent example of the unique marriage between traditional architectural aesthetics and larger-than-life New York proportions.

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