Tag Archives: Woolworth Building

How to climb the Woolworth Building, courtesy the Historic Districts Council

Ever been to the top of the Woolworth Building? Most people haven’t. There are some good lobby tours but rarely any that take you to the very top of the building which was once the world’s tallest when it was completed in 1913.

Well thanks to the Historic Districts Council (along with Sotheby’s International Realty and Gothamist) you’ll now get your chance to visit the Woolworth Tower Residences. (The top floors have been converted to condos.) And all you have to do to win an opportunity is go to a few interesting places in New York and pose for selfies.

First of all, go to this post at the Historic Districts Council.

Secondly, go out and see New York! More specifically, snap a photo of yourself in front of all six buildings named in the infographics on the Historic Districts website — in the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx —  as well as the Woolworth Building in Lower Manhattan. For a total of seven places in New York.

Finally, post each photo on either Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #PreservationPays and tag the Historic Districts Council (@hdcnyc on Instagram and @hdc_nyc on Twitter) before 11:59 PM on Tuesday, September 6th

Five winners will be treated to a private tour of the Woolworth Tower Residences in Lower Manhattan led by Historic Districts Council Adviser and official Woolworth Building Historian Lisa Renz.  Then afterwards, you can post your photos and make us all jealous!

All of the details and rules are available by visiting www.hdc.org/challenge.
This was the view in 1915. Imagine what it looks like now:

A city of bridges: One century ago, Scientific American predicted a future of elevated sidewalks


Imagine a city where the High Line isn’t just a novel park, but the primary form of urban conveyance.

In 1913, with the proliferation of the automobile, it seemed humans were being crowded out at ground level.  People were beginning to think of themselves as removed from the street.  Daredevils were experimenting with flight, and small, single-man crafts began appearing over the skies of Manhattan.  The world’s tallest building, the Woolworth Building, had been completed a few months before.  Perhaps the streets themselves could elevate, granting pedestrians a space of their own?

Scientific American suggested the possibilities of a city of elevated layers in its July 26, 1913 issue. “The Elevated Sidewalk: How It Will Solve City Transportation Problems,” written by engineer and science writer Henry Harrison Suplee, posits that humans and automobiles are simply incompatible and opposing engines upon ground level, and that one will have to give way to the other.

“One of the greatest impediments to city transport today is the continuance of the obsolete method of attempting to conduct foot and vehicular traffic upon the same highways.”

Below: Cars and people seem to co-exist peacefully on Fifth Avenue (pictured here in 1913). But, darn it, automobiles are meant to go fast! 

Courtesy Shorpy
Courtesy Shorpy

After all, cars are meant to go fast.  “In nearly every large city today there appears a tendency to enforce traffic regulations intended to permit the most conflicting elements to be operated together and the result is naturally the impeding of the very traffic which it is desired to help.”

By keeping people and automobiles on the same plane, one risks lives, sure, but more importantly, it slows progress by keeping the potential of auto motion on a short leash.

Suplee’s solution: “Take the foot passengers off the surface of the street entirely, and leave the highways solely for vehicles!”

Below: Evidence of the incompatibility of foot and automobile was being amply displayed all over New York City, most notably on “Death Avenue,” the trecherous tangle of roads on Manhattan’s West Side. Eventually the elevated freight railroad today known as the High Line was built to relieve this issue.



New York had many precedents for this.  The great passages over the East River (the Brooklyn, the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges) had all been completed with elevated pathways for pedestrians, situated over or alongside those paths for vehicular traffic.  Trains were either elevated overhead along the avenues, or buried underneath the ground.

Suplee doesn’t imagine a world were pedestrians become smarter, or any type of place with sophisticated traffic lights or crosswalks.  Instead, elevated sidewalks would hover over the major thoroughfares; “[S]uch sidewalks might be built on Broadway from the Battery to Union Square, there sloping down to the surface level until further extensions were required,” he writes.

In a city of skyscrapers, bridges could be constructed several stories above the street.  Store fronts would appear on the second or third floors, while the ground floor would be exclusively used for delivery and store.  Life would essentially reside many feet above the ground.

Bicycles figure nowhere in his model, but he does carve out one exception to his pedestrian only level.  “The power vehicles should be kept absolutely to the surface, and there given unrestricted facilities for speed, weight, and numbers; and the foot levels maintained for absolute freedom for pedestrians, with the possible exception of carriages for small children.”

As commenter Boris mentions below, while New York City never adhered to this suggestion, other cities certain did — to a certain extent.

You can read Mr. Suplee’s article here.

(A shorter version of this blog post originally ran June 2013)

Battle for the New York City Skyline: How Tall Can It Go?

PODCAST  The story of growing tall in New York City and the two pivotal laws that allowed for the city’s dynamic, constantly evolving skyline.

This year is the 100th anniversary of one of the most important laws ever passed in New York City — the 1916 Zoning Law which dictated the rules for building big and tall in the city. So we thought we’d take this opportunity to ponder on the many changes to New York’s beautiful skyline via the unique technical changes to construction rules.

Why are areas of lower Manhattan darkened canyons, and why are there huge public plazas inside buildings in Midtown? Why do older buildings have graceful and elegant set-backs but newer structures feel like monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey? This is a layman’s history of building tall — our apologizes to architects for simplifying such sophisticated concepts — and the important laws that changed the face of NYC forever.

PLUS: This is our craziest podcast yet.  We’ve decided — as our 199th episode — to hit the road! This entire show is recorded outside in front of the very spots that have most affected the city’s decision. From downtown Manhattan and the Equitable Building to a surprising corner of Hell’s Kitchen.

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and TuneIn streaming radio from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:


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The New York skyline circa 1913 with the newly built Woolworth Building. None of these structures were constructed with a mandated setback.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress


The first Equitable Building, constructed in 1870 (and seen here in 1906), considered New York’s first skyscraper.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

The Equitable was destroyed in a dramatic fire on a cold January 9, 1912.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress


The new Equitable Building was a monster of a bulky skyscraper, casting dark shadows onto the surrounding buildings.

Library of Congress
Library of Congress


This image is the property of The New York Public Library. For each use, you must contact: The New York Public Library, Photographic Services & Permissions, Room 103, 476 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10018; 212-930-0091, fax: 212-930-0533, email: permissions@nypl.org. Using an image from The New York Public Library for publication without payment of use fees and official written permission is strictly prohibited.
Courtesy The New York Public Library.


Midtown Manhattan was a sea of setbacks by the late 1930s. (Photo by the Wurts Brothers)

New York Public Library
New York Public Library


The Empire State Building  under construction. From this angle, the dramatic effect of the setbacks can be seen. (Photo by the Wurts Brothers.)



How Park Avenue looked before the arrival of the Lever House. Photo by the  Wurts Brothers



The Lever House transformed the area of Park Avenue with its unique approach to the 1916 zoning laws. (Photo from 1952)



The Seagram Building, completed in 1958, is the very best example of the glass-curtain style monolith,  More excellent pictures of this classic skyscraper at their website.

Courtesy 375 Park Avenue
Courtesy 375 Park Avenue


The courtyard at Worldwide Plaza, a massive office/residential complex completed in 1989.

Courtesy Wikimedia
Courtesy Wikimedia

The Tallest Building In New York: A Short History

Postcard from the past: When the Singer Building was the world’s tallest (NYPL)

PODCAST One World Trade Center was declared last year the tallest building in America, but it’s a very different structure from the other skyscrapers who have once held that title. In New York, owning the tallest building has often been like possessing a valuable trophy, a symbol of commercial and social superiority. In a city driven by commerce, size matters.

In this special show, I give you a rundown of the history of being tall in New York City, short profiles of the 12 structures (11 skyscrapers and one church!) that have held this title.  In several cases, these weren’t just the tallest buildings in the city; they were the tallest in the world.

At right: The Metropolitan Life Building, the tallest building in the world in 1909

Skyscrapers were not always well received.  New York’s tallest building in 1899 was derisively referred to as a “horned monster.”  Lower Manhattan became defined by this particular kind of structure, creating a canyon of claustrophobic, darkened streets.  But a new destination for these sorts of spectacular towers beckoned in the 1920s — 42nd Street.

You’ll be familiar with a great number of these — the Woolworth, the Chrysler, the Empire State.  But in the early days of skyscrapers, an odd assortment of buildings took the crown as New York’s tallest, from the vanity project of a newspaper publisher to a turtle-like tower made for a sewing machine company.

At stake in the race for the tallest is dominance in the New York City skyline.  With brand new towers popping up now all over the five boroughs, should be worried that they’ll overshadow the classics? Or should the skyline always be in a constant state of flux?

ALSO: New York’s very first tall buildings and the ominous purpose they were used for during the Revolutionary War!

To get this week’s episode, simply download it for FREE from iTunes or other podcasting services, subscribe to our RSS feed or get it straight from our satellite site.

You can also listen to the show on Stitcher streaming radio and Player FM from your mobile devices.

Or listen to it straight from here:
The Bowery Boys #169 The Tallest Building In New York: A Short History

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CORRECTION: Ack, I keep saying Crystal Palace Exposition when it’s actually Crystal Palace Exhibition! I mean, they basically mean the same thing, almost, right?

Photo courtesy Huffington Post

The current tallest buildings in New York City are

1) One World Trade Center — 1,776 feet
2) 432 Park Avenue — 1,394 feet
3) 225 West 57t Street — 1,394 feet
4) Empire State Building — 1,250 feet
5) Bank of America Tower — 1,200 feet
6) Three World Trade Center — 1,171 feet
7 tie) Chrysler Building — 1,046 feet
7 tie) New York Times Tower — 1,046 feet
9) One57 — 1,005 feet
10) 4 World Trade Center — 977 feet

It should be noted that eight of these buildings didn’t exist 10 years ago

Statistics courtesy the Council On Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

The sugar houses owned by the Rhinelander family. Others owned by the Van Cortlandts and the Livingstons would have all been the tallest structures in the city.

Trinity Church in 1889, the final year that it was the tallest permanent structure in New York City. (NYPL)

Trinity would be unparalleled in the New York skyline by any permanent buildings for almost 46 years.  But the Latting Observatory at the Crystal Palace Exhibition for a short time allowed New Yorkers the highest vantage on the island.

Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World Building, in context with its surroundings, including its proximity to the Brooklyn Bridge. This location would be its undoing, as the building was demolished later to make way for an automobile ramp.  (Courtesy Rotograph Project)

The Manhattan Life Insurance Building became a new neighbor for Trinity Church in 1894.  Its lantern top served as a lighthouse and an office for the New York Weather Bureau. (NYPL)

The Park Row Building, the original ‘twin towers’ of lower Manhattan, was criticized for its two-dimensional design but it’s managed to survive into modern times.  It used to host J&R Music World on its ground floor until that business closed last year.

The extraordinarily unusual headquarters for the Singer Sewing Machine Company.  The Singer Building has the rare distinction of being the tallest building every purposefully torn down when it was demolished in the 1960s.

Madison Square was already graced with both the Flatiron Building (below) and Madison Square Garden when it finally got its tallest skyscraper….. (NYPL)

…the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower, pictured here with an early airplane above it, in a postcard produced by Underwood & Underwood. (NYPL)

The Woolworth Building (featured here on a cigarette card) is one of the greatest extant examples of pre-zoning law construction with no setbacks along the front side.

The Manhattan Company Building (or 40 Wall Street) sat among a host of other skyscrapers and was only briefly the city’s tallest building until Walter Chrysler and William Van Alen debuted their surprise uptown.

The Chrysler Building in 1930 with its spire freshly attached to the top, making it (for a little over a year) the tallest building in the world.

The Empire State Building became the tallest building — and the defining symbol of New York City — thanks to a determined executive from General Motors and Al Smith, the former governor of New York.

The World Trade Center returned attention to lower Manhattan and set a new record for height, literally leaving other former record holders in its shadow. (Photo courtesy Life Magazine)


AIA Guide To New York City 2014
Empire State Building: The Making Of A Landmark — John Tauranac
Higher: A Historic Race to the Sky and the Making of a City — Neal Bascomb
Manhattan Manners — M. Christine Boyer
Pulitzer: A Life In Politics, Print and Power — James McGrath Morris
Rise of the New York Skyscraper — Sarah Bradford Landau
Skyscrapers:A Social History of the Very Tall Building In America — George H. Douglas
Supreme City — Donald Miller
and resources from the Landmark Preservation Commission and the New York Skyscraper Museum

Pictures courtesy New York Public Library

History in the Making 4/25: In Memory of a Horrible Fire

Above: A dramatic depiction of a fire which took place 160 years ago today. 

W. T. Jennings was a fine gentleman’s clothing store located at 231 Broadway, on the site of today’s Woolworth Building.  A tremendous fire took the building on the evening of April 25, 1854, causing thousands of dollars in damage and destroying the “hair-dye and wig establishment” next door.

In the image above, you can see the volunteer fire fighters manning a pump at the very edge of City Hall Park.  The Astor House would have been one block to the south.

Eleven men were eventually killed in this horrible blaze, the worst fire-related accident since the Great Explosion of 1845 (which killed 30 people).  It was later discovered that the fire was started by teenager thieves who were subsequently sent to Sing Sing Prison.   However the architect and builders of the structure were censured in a later hearing for creating a so-called fire “death-trap.”   Jennings eventually opened another location at 566 Broadway (at Spring Street).  Below: headline from the NYT.


Some historic-themed links of note:

A Robert Moses-Jane Jacobs opera. It’s happening, soon. “[T]he story of New York, of cities, and of the struggle between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses will be told like never before.”  [Moses Jacobs Opera]

An Alexander Hamilton hip-hop musical. It’s happening even sooner! Coming January 2015. [Public Theatre]

One hundred and forty-nine years ago, there was a solar eclipse on the same day as Abraham Lincoln’s New York funeral procession. Here’s the procession order:  [New York Times]

Next week we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the opening of the World’s Fair 1939-40.  One notable star of the fair — Hitler the Cat! [Slate]

A tour of all the New York City locations used in the Martin Scorsese film Good Fellas, from downtown Manhattan to Astoria, Queens. [Untapped Cities]

Well, isn’t this just great! “Lower Manhattan’s Flood Risk is 20 Times Higher Since 1844″ [Accuweather]

The New York Times Book Club is discussing Colm Toibin’s amazing novel Brooklyn next month!  [NYT]

Next month is Lower East Side History Month! Tours, exhibits, a Henry Street Settlement block party and the sidewalk-focused #ChalkLES are all on the slate.  Check out the full calendar: [LES History Month]

A short history of the New Yorker called the Queen of the Waves who swam the English Channel in 1926. [Ephemeral New York]

Explore the newly opened photo vaults of the American Museum of Natural History! [Gothamist]

Top image courtesy New York Public Library

The Astor House came tumbling down one century ago

The Astor House was New York City’s first great hotel, opened in 1836 by John Jacob Astor himself, a premier accommodation for the city throughout the 19th century.  But by 1913, it was time to tear it down.

It was a symbolic moment for many older New Yorkers.  As you can tell from the image above, the ancient hotel had a new neighbor:  the Woolworth Building, a symbol of the ‘new’ New York City.  As dozens of more modern hotels opened uptown, the old Astor was greatly reduced, with whole sections partitioned for other uses.

For a little comparison, here’s how the building looked in the 1890s, already minimized in its appearance:

Hotels were now flocking to the Times Square area. In fact, so to did the Astor name, with the beautiful Hotel Astor opening there in 1904.

The hotel might have survived a little longer if not for new subway construction in the area, endangering the foundation of the old building.  On May 29, 1913, the hotel closed its doors, and over the next few weeks, the southern section of the Astor House was torn down.  But not without a bevy of reminiscences from old New Yorkers, and a little teeth-gnashing too of a colder, modern city overtaking the gentle comforts of the old.

And then, there’s this dramatic article from the New York Tribune, depicting a literal farewell between the Astor and its neighbor to the south, St. Paul’s Church:

While this spelled doom for a certain memory of New York, those who liked firesales of sorts could take comfort in liquidation sales from famous shops which operated from the old Astor Hotel, such as the Hilton Company:

This is what the space looked like within a couple months.  By the way, that’s the old Post Office to the right of the picture, a structure that would last another quarter century before it too was demolished in 1939:

In 1915, it was replaced with the Astor House Building, a small suite of office spaces that remains on that street corner to this day.  It’s where the Staples store is

All pictures courtesy New York Public Library. By the way, have you check out their incredible new search function?

The many mysterious and tragic events that befell the Woolworths after constructing the Woolworth Building

The dramatic Woolworth mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery 

With completion of the Woolworth Building in 1913, the leader of the five-and-dime retail craze Frank W. Woolworth had his grand declaration of success in New York, widely feted and proclaimed.  His hundreds of stores would go on to define the shopping experience around the world over the coming decades.  (Their lunch counters would also unfortunately typify racial segregation in the 1960s.)  While there are no more Woolworth stores in America today*, you can still find many outlets with that brand as far away as Germany and South Africa.

But life took a few unexpected, frequently tragic and often bizarre twists for the Woolworth family over the next few decades following the completion of the Woolworth Building:

Above: The ‘new’ Winfield Hall in 1925. Courtesy Old Long Island

1) Fire at Winfield Hall:  While the family enjoyed a very luxurious residence at Fifth Avenue and 80th Street across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his wealth was better displayed in the mansion out in Glen Cove, Long Island, where his wife and daughters lived most of the time.  But this house — a wooden, columned manor named Winfield Hall — mysteriously burned down in November 1916.

And just as oddly, Woolworth had almost instantly on hand new plans for a colossal marble palace,  more in keeping with the many gigantic homes along Long Island’s Gold Coast.  Think The Great Gatsby of the five-and-dime; in fact,  Glen Cove is just a few minutes over from Manhasset, fictionalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald as ‘East Egg’.

The estate is reportedly haunted due, according to sources, to Woolworth’s interest in the occult.

2) Single White Mogul:  In 1892, in the early days of Woolworth’s business, he hired a young Brooklyn man, Hubert Parson, as a bookkeeper.  By the 1910s, Parson was Woolworth’s right-hand man, thought of as a part of the family and as the son Frank never had.  In 1916, Woolworth shocked many by promoting the relatively young assistant to the role of general manager.

It then appeared that the notoriously vain Parson was attempting to actually outdo his boss, first building a bigger Fifth Avenue mansion than his boss, then, in 1918 purposefully buying a house in Long Branch, New Jersey — named Shadow Lawn — that was far larger than Woolworth’s own Winfield Hall!  “If Woolworth bought a brand new automobile,” writes author Karen Plunkett-Powell, “then Parson would, too — complete with uniformed chauffeur.”

After Frank’s death, Parson would become president of the company.  Later in life, he would be criticized for his “extravagant personal lifestyle” during the Great Depression and was eventually forced to retire.

3) Death at the Plaza:  Woolworth’s daughter Edna was a tragic and very tormented woman, marrying an associate of her father’s who ended up drinking heavily and cheating on her. In 1917, at the Plaza Hotel, after reading a letter confirming yet another mistress, Edna put on her loveliest lace dress, sat by a window and ingested a lethal dose of poison.  Unfortunately, her body is discovered several hours later by her daughter Barbara.

4) Why You Should Go to the Dentist:  Frank Woolworth had an absolute hatred of going to the dentist, a prejudice that led to his death in April 1919, when he died suddenly due to a tooth infection.  Unbelievably, he died with his will unsigned, and all the money (about $30 million) went to his wife Jennie.

However, Jennie was having problems all her own, having been declared ‘mentally feeble‘ and legally incompetent by this time. Of the will, “DEMENTED WIFE GETS ALL,” said an unsubtle New York Times headline.  It’s not clear to me from the reporting of the day, but it appears from description that Mrs. Woolworth was suffering from Alzheimer’s when her husband died.

5) Gem Theft at the Plaza:  In 1926, the youngest Woolworth daughter Jennie, living the good life at the Plaza, had over $683,000 worth of jewels stolen from her room while she was in the bathtub.  “The thief displayed a shrewd knowledge of pearls,” said the Times. “Alongside the genuine ones in the drawer were four ropes of imitation pearls …. [T]he robber scorned them.”  The crime kept the Woolworths in the paper for an entire month.  The jewels mysteriously reappeared a week later and the man who purloined them — a private detective! — was arrested.

Five years later, Jennie’s husband would then poison himself (another suicide) and die in his office at the Woolworths’ Fifth Avenue residence.

6) Poor Little Rich Girl:  Barbara Hutton (above), who had discovered her mother dead in the Plaza, grew up to become something of an infamous party girl, thanks to an over-the-top debutante ball held in her honor during the Great Depression.  She was dubbed the ‘poor little rich girl’, fodder for gossip columns and, later, made-for-TV movies.  The heiress, never shying from an extravagant lifestyle, married seven times — most notably to Cary Grant in 1942 — in a life often marred by tragedy and physical abuse.

Most of the people mentioned above are buried in the ornate Woolworth Mausoleum in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.  The mausoleum is a tribute to vast wealth and self-importance, designed like an Egyptian temple by John Russell Pope, best known for designing the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C.!

*The remnants of the Woolworth company are now organized as Foot Locker Inc.

The Woolworth Building at 100: How they partied in 1913, with the “highest dinner ever held in New York”

This is how they turn on the lights at the tallest building in the world in 1913:

At some time after 7 pm,  according the New York Sun the following day, “President [Woodrow] Wilson pushed a button in Washington last night, a bell tinkled in the engineer’s quarters far below the street level in the Woolworth Building and thousands of lights [80,000, by contemporary accounts] flashed out … to signal that New York’s newest heaven kissing tower was opened formally for service.”

As normal New Yorkers stared up in wonder at this glowing candle near City Hall, an electric vision that lorded over the dark hulk of the unloved Post Office across the street, a collection of wealthy men were gathered up on the 27th floor for a lavish banquet in honor of the building’s architect, Cass Gilbert (at right).  The Tribune called it “the highest dinner ever held in New York.” (The building is 57 floors; dinner could have been much higher but for tenants who had already moved in.)

Holding court this evening was, of course, Frank W. Woolworth, the man whose retail empire inspired the building’s construction. Also presiding over the gala was Francis Hopkinson Smith, a close friend of Gilbert’s who, several years earlier, just happened to built the foundation for the Statue of Liberty.

People toasted a true American entrepreneur. They toasted his visionary architect and his world-class achievement.  Many toasted the fact that both men, after years of arduous work, were still talking to each other.



The Woolworth Building at night in 1913. This extraordinary photo is courtesy of Shorpy, my favorite website of all time. Click here to see the whole spectacular version and to search their their archive of cleaned-up vintage photos. (You can find the original picture at Library of Congress.)


It was a celebration of the filthy rich, possibly one of the most indulgent dinners of the Gilded Age.  In attendance were governors, dozens of congressmen and military men, judges, the police commissioner  and at least seven of Woolworth’s early business partners.  A letter from William Howard Taft, a month into his post-presidency, elicited enthusiastic applause.

But nothing like the reaction when Gilbert stood up to honor his benefactor, who paid for the entire building from his lucrative retail profits. “I asked his bankers about it and they told me that the Woolworth Building is a structure unique in New York, since it stands without mortgage and without a dollar of indebtedness.”

At this, the 37th floor erupted into “the big noise of the celebration.”  Gilbert was then presented with a bronze foot-high cup — a literal trophy earned for building one for Frank Woolworth.  Following the dinner, Boy Scouts — patient ones, apparently — then raced downstairs ten floors to the Marconi wireless station, where an honored greeting was sent back to President Wilson.

Below: The Woolworth and lower Manhattan in 1919, lit from a building in Brooklyn.  Specifically this was the Sperry Spotlight. You can read my article on ‘the world’s most powerful searchlight’ here. (Picture courtesy Library of Congress)


The Woolworth Building was an achievement of American capitalism and a fabulous symbol of limitless New York real estate.  Its technical achievements, impossible to imagine a decade prior, only reinforced the themes of the day — money could defy gravity.

On the day of the official opening, the following ad ran in the Evening World (While April 24th was the ceremonial first day, May 1st was the beginning of the building’s leases.):


Nobody would “forget about you” — provided you took out a lease at the Woolworth — but most importantly they certainly wouldn’t forget the name affixed to this building. The Woolworth continued the trend of business owners who created skyscrapers as a show of business dominance.

Newspapermen popularized the trend — for instance, The World Building, offices for Joseph Pulitzer‘s New York World, was also a world’s-tallest at one point — and insurance companies and retailers would perfect it.  In fact, three decades later, the crown for world’s tallest building would be taken by a structure in midtown Manhattan named for a car company — The Chrysler Building.

The Woolworth was considered a vertical super-city, in an era before anybody ever dreamt of Rockefeller Center.  “You can deposit and draw money at the bank on the first floor; in the basement there are barber shops and a swimming pool, one of the largest in New York …. There is an arcade lined with attractive shops whose fronts are entirely of plate glass. Then there is a luncheon club, library and gymnasium on the 28th floor and an observatory station on the roof.”

Woolworth’s own businesses took up only two floors.  The rest were filled with such premiere tenants as Fordham University (its law school and dean’s offices were here), Irving National Bank and even Columbia Records.

Below: A study for Woolworth’s private office in the Woolworth Building.  Frank Woolworth was obsessed with the life of Napoleon Bonaparte, and his office was fashioned on a room from Napoleon’s castle in Compaigne, France.  (Pic courtesy LOC)


Today, we might consider the Woolworth Building to be a rather elusive monument.  You can’t regularly tour it, and its style, before New York’s zoning laws, makes it a unique stranger within New York’s skyscraper population.  You can’t interact with it like Grand Central, and it doesn’t have the personality of the art-deco Chrysler or the Flatiron.

But even if its nightly mystical posture on the skyline somehow fails to ensnare you, the Woolworth Building stands alone as an influence to almost every skyscraper that has come afterwards, from the Empire State Building to the Woolworth’s old neighbor the World Trade Center.  Of the many grand visions born in New York before the 1910s — the Erie Canal, Central Park, the Croton Aqueduct, the Brooklyn Bridge — the Woolworth Building is easily the most effortless in execution.  And arguably the most duplicated.

Or as the Sun prophesied a week after the building opened: “The Woolworth Building is unique, it was explained. Its style of architecture is original in office buildings and there were no precedents or rules upon which to go.  The proportions have now been ascertained and will be available for the guidance of architects in the future.”

 Photo by Alan Miles/Flickr

A couple other Woolworth Building themed posts in the past week: Cass Gilbert’s three stunning prequels to the Woolworth Building and Before Woolworth: The early towers of lower Broadway at the birth of the skyscraper boom.

Interested in learning about the history of the Woolworth Building? It’s our Episode 76. You can download it from here, find it on iTunes, or just play it below!


And finally, I found this in a July 1919 copy of the New York Evening World — the Woolworth Building as a possible air dock for dirigibles! (This never happened of course.)

What a resume! Cass Gilbert’s three stunning prequels to the Woolworth Building

From this angle, you can see two of Cass Gilbert’s creation, the West Street Building and the Woolworth under construction.  View of his Broadway-Chambers Building is obscured by the building to the left. (LOC)

It’s Woolworth Building week here in New York City!  The lights of Frank Woolworth‘s treasured office tower were turned on in an official ceremony on April 24, 1913, and the building opened for business on May 1.

The five-and-dime mogul reached for one of America’s leading architects in planning his namesake tower. Cass Gilbert had distinguished himself in Minnesota before arriving in New York City in 1899 where he immediately went to work transforming the skyline.

Why was he given such a prestigious assignment to create the world’s largest building?  Judging from his work in New York prior to the Woolworth job, there would have been few more qualified than Gilbert to create on a grand scale something so innovative, distinctive to Woolworth’s vision and in keeping with Beaux-Arts values of the day.  Unlike another great architect of the day like George Post — whose greatest works have almost all completely vanished — all three of Gilbert’s early New York buildings survive.

Here’s the three buildings that helped him snag the commission for the Woolworth headquarters:

The Broadway-Chambers Building
277 Broadway

Gilbert’s designs for this sturdy tower with a lovely copper top (now, of course, oxidized to green, just like Lady Liberty) featured a mix of brick and terra-cotta, some polychrome, a rarity for its day.

The building’s new tenants required changes to Gilbert’s original plans. The Domestic National Bank on the second floor, who happened to employ a great number of women, required an increase of accessible women’s bathrooms.  And the United States Life Insurance Company demanded several large safes be transported to upper floors and installed.  Despite the changes, the structure was completed in a staggering four months.

Alexander Hamilton Custom House
One Bowling Green

The competition to replace the old Custom House at 55 Wall Street was the impetus that brought Gilbert to New York to create one of America’s finest examples of Beaux-Arts architecture.  He was a heavily contested choice, as his designs beat those of New York firms like Carrere and Hastings (later to create a similar building for the New York Public Library).

The seven-story office — more like a monument, really — sits atop the location of old Fort Amsterdam, giving the location a sense of import with its four representative sculptures (by Daniel Chester French) of Africa, America, Asia and Europe.  Today the structure houses the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

West Street Building 
90 West Street

But it may have been his 1905 commission to design a waterfront office building on West Street for ferry operator and asphalt king Howard Carroll that secured his reputation as a virtuoso of the skyscraper age.  The building, to serve port and railroad industries of lower Manhattan, had Manhattan’s highest restaurant on its top floor.  At the time, this was shorefront property; today it stands across from Battery Park City.

Gilbert would dabble in themes and styles with the West Street Building that would be further explored with the Woolworth Building.  No other building shares as many features with the Woolworth Building as this one.   Former rival John Carrere admitted, “If my opinion counts for anything I think it is the most successful building of its class.”

Below: the West Street Building, the side facing into Manhattan. 

Pictures courtesy NYPL.

Before Woolworth: The early towers of lower Broadway at the birth of the skyscraper boom

Next week is the 100th birthday of the opening of the Woolworth Building.  The classic skyscraper designed by Cass Gilbert changed everything about perceptions of tall buildings in Manhattan — for good and ill.  Suddenly, towers could be as graceful and important as monuments, and as playful and enigmatic as castles.

New Yorkers were anxious to fill their downtown with glorious towers for business, to best their rivals in Chicago (where many of the finest architects worked) and to prove the city’s grandeur to the world.

To that end, the New York Sun on April 13, 1913, ran this curious map in their real estate section, under the header “Rebuilding of Lower Manhattan Progressing Slowly.”  The point of the section is clear;  lower Manhattan was filled with useless old, rundown buildings that needed to be replaced at once!

It was this push at the start of the 20th century that gives lower Manhattan its unusual character, with few buildings before 1890 still standing.  The ‘canyon’ of lower Broadway was beginning to develop by 1913, only to be further dramatized with taller, more dramatic structures in the coming years.  The height of the structures along Broadway and around Wall Street soon eclipsed those structures on Park Row and most of the early skyscrapers built further up Manhattan, around Madison Square.

Some of the buildings lining Broadway before 1913 included:

The Singer Building (149 Broadway), the tallest building in the world in 1908 (at left, with St. Paul’s Chapel in center, photo from 1910):

The Manhattan Life Insurance Building (64-70 Broadway), the tallest building from 1894-99 (pictured here in 1895) There’s an entire blog devoted to his building. Pic is from there.

The building being constructed in the photo above is the American Surety Building (100 Broadway) which is still standing today.  The building was constructed in 1896.  In the background you can also see another mighty skyscraper, the very Venetian-styled Bankers Trust Company Building (14 Wall Street), finished in 1912. (Pic courtesy LOC)

And the Trinity Building (111 Broadway), completed in 1907, also still around today.  It replaced a five story office building from 1853 that had been designed by Richard Upjohn. (LOC)

I love that most of the above buildings can be seen in relation to Trinity Church (79 Broadway), once the tallest building at 284 feet.  (Pictured below completely surrounded by skyscrapers by 1916, picture courtesy LOC)

All of these buildings pre-date the Woolworth Building and, of course, the 1916 Zoning Resolution that required architects to build setbacks into their designs.  In fact, in the photo of Trinity above, you can see the principal reason the zoning law was enacted — the colossal Equitable Building, finished in 1915.

Next week: More on the 100th anniversary of the Woolworth Building!

You can read the New York Sun section from April 1913 here.