PODCAST: The Woolworth Building

When this classic photo was taken in 1928, the Woolworth Building was still the tallest in New York

F.W. Woolworth was the self-made king of retail’s newfangled ‘five and dime’ store and his pockets were overflowing with cash. Meanwhile, in New York, the contest to build the tallest building was well underway. The two combine to create one of Manhattan’s most handsome buildings, cutting a Gothic profile designed by America’s hottest architect of the early century. So what exactly does it all have to do with sneakers and gym clothes?

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Frank Winfield Woolworth was an upstate New York who worked in general stores in his youth before branching out into his own unique ‘five and dime’ retailers — places where customers could interact with the merchandise directly, without a store clerk.

Frank’s stores changed the way people shopped for everyday items. This fancy Woolworth location even had a lofty address — 5th Avenue and 39th Street (courtesy Corbis)

The tallest structure in New York for many years was the spire of the Trinity Church, on Broadway, at the foot of Wall Street. In 1890, its height was finally topped with the completion of the World Building by the influential publisher of the New York World newspaper, Joseph Pulitzer.

In 1894, Pulitzer lost the tallest building title with the completion of the Manhattan Life Building, a clever structure with two sides that top out with an iron bridge and a towering lantern at 348 ft. It was across the street from Trinity Church (today occupied by the domineering Bank of New York Building).

The Park Row Building came next, completed in 1899. It still stands today, with the Woolworth looking down on it. J&R Music World still occupies many of its floors today.

Perhaps the strangest building to become New York’s tallest was the Singer Building, built in 1908 at a then-staggering 612 feet. It has the very dubious distinction of being the tallest building in history ever to be purposefully demolished (in 1968, making way for the frustratingly bleak One Liberty Plaza).

In order for Frank to build New York’s tallest structure, he need to beat the Metropolitan Life Tower, completed in 1909, still a beauty next to Madison Square Park.

The Woolworth, nearly complete in this picture from 1913 (courtesy the Life archives)

View from the Hudson, mid 1910s: three tallest buildings are the Woolworth Building, the Singer Building and the Bankers Trust Building (built in 1912) Pic courtesy Library of Congress

From this old postcard and photograph below, you can see the Woolworth’s proximity to City Hall and the old Post Office (later demolished to expand City Hall Park)

It’s height was enough of a marvel that this rather odd comparison was made in the book Our Wonder World Vol. IV, Geo. L. Shuman & Co., 1914 (Courtesy Flickr)

A view from the other side of the Woolworth, taken in 1920, reveals two other buildings that were once considered ‘the tallest building in New York’: the domed World Building to the left, the Park Row Building to the right.

A remarkable and rather dreamlike nighttime shot of Manhattan in 1919, with the Woolworth building gleaming like a candle

An owl ‘gargoyle’, one of many playful details Cass Gilbert incorporated into the building’s massive terra cotta face.

Inside the vaulted, gold-drenched lobby (courtesy Flickr)

To promote the most recent Batman film The Dark Knight, the Bat Signal was projected onto the Woolworth Building.

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