New York City Guide

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Woolworth Building

Woolworth Building 1Located on Broadway, between Park Place at Barclay Street, the Woolworth Building, known as the Cathedral of Commerce, was built in 1913 and when completed, became the tallest tower in the world, until the completion of the Bank of Manhattan tower and then the Chrysler building in 1930. Frank Winfield Woolworth, the owner of the '5 and dime' Woolworth retail chain admired the gothic buildings in Europe, in particular the Houses of Parliament in London. When he needed a new office building for his company headquarters, he asked Cass Gilbert to build a gothic tower with plenty of windows. Gilbert, who had studied in Europe, designed a steel framed U shaped skyscraper with gothic ornamentation. Essentially, the Woolworth Building is a thirty-story tower set upon a thirty story base. Vertical bays of windows and gothic-style spandrels, are set off from one another by vertical piers, that are meant to express the structure of the building. At its base, the building is a practical U shaped mass that was designed to maximize the amount of light to the offices. It spirals upward in a sheer Gothic fantasy of arches, spires, flying buttresses and gargoyles. The Woolworth Building is essentially a twentieth century building clad with cream-coloured terra cotta with fifteenth century gothic details.

Just as important as its exterior appearance is what lies underneath the tower. At the time of its completion, it was the tallest building ever constructed but without a foundation in bedrock. Some feared that this would make the building unstable and could cause the building to collapse. Gilbert countered this by sinking a series of caissons 110-feet into the soil below, in much the same way that bridges are built today.

The Woolworth building is best known for its neo-gothic style and decorations, the main entrance on Broadway resembles European Cathedral entrances. It is decorated with many symbols, like salamanders (symbol for the transmutation of iron and clay into steel and terra-cotta) and owls (symbol for wisdom). Two empty niches flank the entrance: one was supposed to hold a statue of Frank Winfield Woolworth, but it was never realized.

Woolworth Building 3The Woolworth Building was primarily a rental building as Woolworth only occupied one and a half floors. One way to attract tenants was to have an exquisite lobby so that when tenants or their guests arrived, they could not help but to be impressed. First there is a small outer lobby, then you enter through revolving doors into the main lobby with high vaulted ceilings. Woolworth spent an enormous amount of money on the lobby. It became one of the most lavish and outstanding spaces in New York.

The firm of Heineicke and Bowen, was hired to do most of internal work, with barrel-vaulted mosaics filled with flowers and birds plus other ornaments based on early Christian mosaics from Ravenna, Italy. They were responsible for the stained glass dome over the marble staircase. The decorations were truly lavish. Ironic when you think that the Woolworth fortune was based on frugal customers spending their nickels and dimes.

There are carved caricatures inside the lobby, of men who were involved in the buildings construction. One is a sculpture of Cass Gilbert, holding a model of the Woolworth building, another depicts Frank Winfield Woolworth paying for his building in coins. Woolworth chose to pay the $13.5 million cost of the building in cash.

The Woolworth Building served as the company's headquarters up until 1997, when the company closed its remaining variety outlets to concentrate on other speciality stores, such as the Foot Locker chain.

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