1910–1913

This site is included in LMCC’s Creative Insider’s Guide to Lower Manhattan, sponsored by Launch LM.

From the Brooklyn Bridge, the iconic Woolworth Building is especially impressive. Frank W. Woolworth, who amassed a huge fortune operating a chain of low-priced department stores throughout the United States and abroad, was certainly familiar with the area. Not only had his headquarters been on Chambers Street, but until 1901 he had been a Brooklyn resident, occupying a fine brownstone in what is now Bedford-Stuyvesant. To reach his downtown office, he is likely to have taken the elevated railway, which traveled on Fulton Street and began crossing the bridge in the early 1890s. His daily commute would have familiarized Woolworth with the Manhattan skyline and the impact tall buildings were having on the public imagination. Though he never opened a store here, the Woolworth Building had enormous publicity value, symbolizing the company and its remarkable success.

Cass Gilbert, the building’s architect, was already quite famous. Among his various commissions, two stood within walking distance of the site and were probably familiar to Woolworth: the brick and terra-cotta Broadway-Chambers Building, finished in 1901, as well as the architect’s first essay in the neo-Gothic style, 90 West Street, completed in 1907. This building, as well as 55 Liberty Street, designed by Henry Ives Cobb in 1909-10, were among the first skyscrapers in New York City to feature medieval ornamentation. Gilbert later designed the nearby New York County Lawyers Association Building on Vesey Street and the U.S. Courthouse Building, among his last works, on Foley Square.

At the start of the 20th century, when few buildings stood taller than five or six stories, the Woolworth Building was and remains a standout. Clad with lovely off-white terra-cotta panels, this striking neo-Gothic office tower has handsome proportions and a famously ornate lobby, decorated with yellow Siena marble, sparkling ceiling mosaics, murals, and, at the rear, a large stained glass ceiling. Widely discussed are the plaster corbels that flank the elevator doors and other locations. These amusing gargoyles, by Gilbert employee Tom Johnson, portray the various people who were involved in the building’s construction, including Woolworth himself and the structural engineer Gunwald Aus.

Like most buildings that have held the title as the world’s tallest, this building featured a public observation gallery near the top, or about 750 feet above Broadway. Visitors paid fifty cents to travel by high-speed express elevator to the 51st floor, changed to a second elevator, and then completed the ascent via stairs, finally stepping out into a shallow ring-like space enclosed by a chest-high railing pierced by Gothic tracery located just below the copper pinnacle. Woolworth, perhaps, underestimated the public appetite for this kind of lofty experience and the capacity is relatively low, probably no greater than thirty persons. Closed since the beginning of the Second World War, the gallery is now only open by special invitation. And special it is! Though other observatories may be more spacious, more elevated, or better protected from the elements, the Woolworth Building continues to stand in relative isolation, permitting unsurpassed views of the ever-changing metropolis.

Matthew A. Postal