Woolworth Building

Woolworth Building

Skyscrapers and New York City go hand in hand, and the spectacular Woolworth Building has been an iconic landmark in Manhattan’s skyline since the early twentieth century. Funded by the original five and dime king Frank W. Woolworth, owner of the retail chain of discount stores bearing his name, the Woolworth Building was completed in 1913 and is one of the oldest skyscrapers in the city. At 792 feet, the impressive structure remains one of the tallest and most famous buildings in the United States and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1966.

Woolworth Building


A Grand Vision

In 1910, Frank W. Woolworth commissioned architect Cass Gilbert to design the new corporate headquarters for Woolworth’s. His vision for his company’s new home was a big one right from the start as he had a great admiration for majestic, European-style Gothic buildings such as the parliament buildings in London, England.

Gilbert designed an ornate Gothic-inspired structure that was initially estimated to reach 45 stories or 625 feet. But Woolworth’s vision for his building grew bigger as he acquired more land around the site, and by the time it was completed in 1913 the Woolworth Building soared 58 stories (792 feet) and stretched the length of the block. Supported by a massive stone base, this enormous structure was a feat of advanced engineering, constructed to stand up to wind pressure of 200 miles per hour. It also boasted its own steam turbines and 30 extremely fast elevators. The 58th story houses an observation deck with stunning city views that was closed in 1945.

Often referred to as the “Cathedral of Commerce”, the building feature Gothic architectural details including copper spires, a terra cotta exterior, sweeping arched entrances and a massive ceiling mural with the world’s largest piece of Tiffany glass showing the countries and the years where Woolworth stores were opened. The lobby is adorned with gargoyle sculptures characterizing people involved in the creation of the building including depictions of Gilbert with his slide rule and Woolworth counting his coins. The retail magnate’s private office, preserved with marble, is still intact.

Open for Business

When the Woolworth Building opened its doors in 1913 on Broadway between Park Place and Barclay Street, it boasted the title of the tallest building in the world. The original budget of the structure was $5 million, but the final cost rose to $13.5 million as the size of the building grew.

In keeping with the grandness of the building, the opening ceremonies on April 24, 1913 were a festive affair with President Woodrow Wilson himself pushing a button and lighting up the interior and exterior of the building. At that moment, the President illuminated 80,000 lights and the city proudly celebrated the opening of a record-setting edifice.

For A Time, a Record-Setter

After it was completed in 1913, the Woolworth Building enjoyed the status of the world’s tallest building until it was surpassed in 1930 by the former Bank of Manhattan tower (40 Wall Street.) This building held the title for a very short time, losing its designation just a couple of months later when the Art Deco-inspired Chrysler Building opened. The 102 storey Empire State Building, also featuring Art Deco architecture, stripped the Chrysler Building of its status when it was erected in 1931. It remained the tallest building in the world for over four decades until the World Trade Center’s North Tower was opened in the early 70s.

Paid in Full

Frank Winfield Woolworth came from humble beginnings. The son of a potato farmer, he would eventually become the founder of the hugely successful Woolworth chain of five and dime stores. The retail giant, a pioneer of fixed prices on store merchandise, did not take out a mortgage for the Woolworth Building. This was unheard of for a commercial property of that size. He paid cash for the entire $13.5 million cost, and the sculpture of him counting coins is said to be him paying for his building.

Visiting Woolworth Building New York

The Woolworth Building is located across the street from City Hall Park at 233 Broadway, at the southwest corner of Broadway and Park Place in Lower Manhattan.

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