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Woolworth Building remains skyscraper marvel

The Woolworth Building was called the "Cathedral of Commerce" when it opened in lower Manhattan early in the 20th century.

From 1913 to 1930, the $13.5 million Beaux Arts building with Gothic ornamentation was the tallest in the world.

The 57-story Woolworth Building, topped by a green patina-ed copper roof, has long since been overshadowed by the two skyscrapers that topped it in height in rapid succession, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building. But the steel-framed building still remains a sight to behold, and with tours offered six days a week, it's now possible  to see the ornate wood-and-marble interior and opulent ceiling once off-limits to the public.

The story of the Woolworth Building begins with Frank W. Woolworth, who revolutionizing merchandising by creating the five and dime store that would make the F. W. Woolworth Company the most successful chain in the world by mid-century. The company's success was made even greater the year construction began, when Frank Woolworth merged with five other independent chain store owners,  including Buffalo's Seymour H. Knox, Woolworth's cousin who became a company vice president.


A carving of five-and-dime store magnate Frank Woolworth counting his nickels inside the Woolworth Building. (Mark Sommer)

For his architect, Woolworth selected Cass Gilbert, who designed the ornate Chambers-Broadway Building across from where the dime store magnate had an office, blocks from the Woolworth site. Gilbert also completed the highly regarded Alexander Hamilton U.S. Customs House in 2007. After the Woolworth Building, Gilbert would count the United States Supreme Court Building among his many prominent commissions.

In erecting the tallest building ever made, Woolworth -- with the help of a talented press agent, and an unheard-of $100,000 marketing budget -- succeeded in capturing the world's imagination.

The Woolworth Building opened in grand fashion. President Woodrow Wilson pressed a telegraphic button in the White House on April 14, 1913 that lit 80,000 incandescent light bulbs, including floodlights, even more of a novelty. Frank Woolworth gave a banquet in Gilbert's honor attended by over 800 men of distinction.

The building was located across from City Hall Park, near a subway line and close to Wall Street and the world of finance. With telephones not yet widely used, face-to-face business transactions were still the norm, and the location and the splendor of the Woolworth Building intentionally conveyed opulence and power.

"You're looking at an ode to Frank  Woolworth's wealth, his ego and where he felt the Woolworth corporation stood on the world stage of commerce," tour guide Bob Gelber said.

The Woolworth company only used two floors, with the rest leased to banks and businesses at the in-demand 233 Broadway address.

The most authoritative book on the office tower, "The Skyscraper and the City: The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York," by Gail Fenske, notes that 100,000 visitors a year were paying to tour the building three years after its opening. The tours alone by 1931 recouped over 20 percent of the building's cost.

The building's unprecedented height was possible due to innovations by Gunvald Aus, the structural engineer, and in elevator technology. While the exterior was cladded in  decorative white terra cotta, with classic features such as arches, gargoyles and spires, some 24,000 tons of steel actually held up the building. It took 1,500 workers working around the clock to complete the building in 29 months, with Woolworth there virtually every day to monitor the progress.

An interior shot of the Woolworth Building (Tom McGovern Photography)

The most striking part of the interior, with its church-like floor plan, is a Romanesque ceiling, featuring some 1.4 million glass tiles above terrazzo floors. But the most jaw-dropping element in its day were the hidden lights above the elevators, and outside, behind the hand-carved stone work.

"Frank Woolworth built the most expensive building in the world, and the tallest building in the world, and designed it opulently," Gelber said. "But what really made the American public know how wealthy Frank Woolworth was was when they visited the building and they looked up,  and behind the hand-carved stone work was hidden lighting, electricity. In 1910, electricity and light bulbs were so expensive that only a really rich man could build a building like that, and then light it."

Grotesques in the lobby-arcade present medieval guild members of a trade union, including a potter, stone mason, wood carver and tanner. Another set features key figures in the development of the building, including one of Gilbert clutching a model of the Woolworth building, and another with Frank Woolworth counting his nickels.

Gelber said renovations to the building are under consideration. A skylight in the rear closed since 1920 for fear the weight of snow and  ice could cause the window panes to collapse, is expected to be remodeled to let light in again. Concrete panels put onto the outside of the building decades ago when terra cotta was no longer being produced could be replaced with terra cotta, and gold leaf once embedded into the Louis Comfort Tiffany-designed elevators may also return.

Currently, the top 29 floors are being redeveloped into 33 luxury condominiums, with the penthouse alone listed for $110 million. The lower floors will continue to be leased for office space.

Helen Post Curry, the great-granddaughter of Cass Gilbert, and co-operator of Woolworth Tours with her brother, is proud of her family's connection to the building -- and to be able to reopen the lower portion of the building to the public.

"What I appreciate about the building is that it's so beautiful," Curry said. "People who know about it love it. No one ever says I can't stand that Woolworth Building. It's great beauty has certainly stood the test of time.

"What I think isn't appreciated is what an engineering marvel it was when it went up," Curry said. "It was the first use of high-speed elevators by the Otis Company. Without that development, the  building wouldn't have been as tall as it was.

"I think that all of the underpinnings for the building, the structural engineering and the mechanicals that had to be figured out to create something that tall and that big is lost on people today."

If you go:

There are three tours offered by Woolworth Tours, with at least one offered every day except Sunday.

The 30-minute Basic Tour costs $20, and includes a visit to the main lobby and a talk about the building's history. Tours are 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 1 p.m. Saturdays.

The 60-minute Standard Tour costs $30, and includes a visit to the main lobby, a talk about the building's history, and a talk about the building's exterior. Tours are 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 11:30 a.m. Saturdays.

The 90-minute Deluxe Tour costs $45, and includes a visit to the main lobby, a talk about the building's history, a talk about the building's exterior, a trip to the mezzanine level, a talk on the importance of putting the building in lower Manhattan and a discussion about other Cass Gilbert buildings in Manhattan. Tours are 2 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and 11:30 a.m., and 2 p.m. Saturdays.


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