New York’s Woolworth Building: The Original Cathedral Of Commerce

Woolworth Building

Photo: Joe Mabel / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

When conversation begins to lean towards the topic of the tallest buildings in New York City, legendary skyscrapers such as The Word Trade Center, The Empire State Building, The Chrysler Building and the former Pan Am building now named the Met Life Building are often brought to the forefront of the conversation. However, there was a time when a building often ignored as one of the tallest, named The Woolworth Building, stood not only as the tallest building in New York City, but also the entire world.

The spectacular and grand looking Woolworth Building was commissioned to be built by Frank Winfield Woolworth in the early twentieth century. Frank Winfield Woolworth was an American businessman who had made a fortunate in the retail business with his concept of the 5 and 10 cent store (often referred to as the five and dime) named Woolworths. The business tycoon hired architect Cass Gilbert of the firm, McKim, Mead & White to build his magnificent building. Frank Winfield Woolworth told the firm that he wanted a building that would echo the majesty of London, England’s House of Parliament. However, he also wanted the top of the building to be built with a Gothic flare in White Terra Cotta. The result was a building of which had never been seen before in both height, elegance, and design.[1]

The Woolworth Building was built directly across from City Hall Park. The land it was built on stood at the corner of Broadway and Park Place in the borough of Manhattan. The Woolworth Building was completed in 1913 one year before the start of World War I in Europe. Frank Winfield Woolworth paid thirteen million dollars to have his building erected. However, a good portion of that thirteen million also went towards the acquisition of the land in which the building was erected on.

When the Woolworth Building was completed in 1913. It stood as the tallest building in the world. While some may seem not impressed by the fact that it was only fifty five floors and seven hundred and ninety two feet tall, it was indeed an extraordinary accomplishment for the time period. In the 1910’s and most of the 1920’s when one looked across the skyline of New York City, on could not escape the grand view of the Woolworth Building. For sixteen years the Woolworth Building stood as the tallest building in New York City until the year 1929. That famous year which signaled the start of the Great Depression as the stock markets crashed around the world also signified the completion of the Chrysler Building which would take away The Woolworth Building’s title as the tallest building in the world.

The history of The Woolworth Building is not just fueled by the building’s record setting height, but also the amenities designed within the building that had for the most part not been done before. When the Woolworth Building was completed in 1913, Frank Woolworth was able to celebrate moving his offices into a building that was completely self-sufficient. As I sit here writing this article in the dark with a flashlight, pen, paper and the use of my large library books as my references because of a power outage caused by a hurricane, I yearn for what Frank Winfield Woolworth had built into his new building; an independent power plant.

The Woolworth Building was a wonder for the times it was built in. Not only did the building utilize its own power plant, it was also air conditioned, which was not a luxury found in many New York City Buildings during the early 1900s. Even more grand for the times was the fact that the Woolworth Building also contained a large swimming pool. There was also a doctor’s office and barber. It was a building meant to house the titans of business by offering facilities they could not find in any other New York city building while celebrating bragging rights as tenants of the grandest building in the world. It was impressive in as many ways as you could count. Even the construction of the building was ahead of its times as some of the engineering utilized in fortifying the building was the same engineering used in strengthening bridges. As the Woolworth Building would become the tallest building in the world, every effort went into making it one of the safest.

Those who entered the Woolworth Building for the first time were completely blown away by the building’s imposing lobby. Patrons were greeted by an imposing three story arcade entrance. The lobby was filled with custom made marble and surrounded by stained glass, mosaics and murals. There were also two large frescos labeled Labor and Commerce inside the lobby. It was a spectacular lobby that welcomed not only business people to celebrate the glory of it, but also the general public. The grandeur of it all helped the building earn the nickname “The Cathedral of Commerce. That name was given to the Woolworth building by the famous preacher of the times the Reverend Samuel Parks Cadman. [2] On the day the building opened, the Reverend Samuel Parks spoke at the opening ceremonies famously saying about the skyscraper concept of the Woolworth Building, “ It does not scrape the sky, it greets it.”[3]

The opening of the Woolworth Building in New York City was viewed through the eyes of the American Experience as more than just a symbol of American Business. The Woolworth Building defined the growth of a Nation that was less than a hundred and fifty years old at the time. The building was such a symbol of the success of American commerce, ingenuity and development that an American President (Woodrow Wilson ) turned on a switch at 7.30 pm on April 24, 1913 from The White House that turned on eighty thousand lights in the Woolworth Building on its grand opening day.

In 1998, the Woolworth building was sold. Along with the end of the famous Woolworth’s chain of stores, a chapter in American history moved on to a new owner, A building that once stood as the tallest in the world in 2020, no linger even ranks in the top 200.

Woolworth's Building

Photo: Ludovic Bertron from New York City, Usa / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

References:

[1]Fenske, G. (2014). The skyscraper and the city: The Woolworth Building and the making of modern New York. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

.[2]Morrone, F., & Rajs, J. (2015). New York City landmarks. Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club.p 50

[3] Burns, R., Sanders, J., & Ades, L. (2005). New York: An illustrated history. New York: Alfred A Knopf. P.293

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