Woolworth’s Cathedral

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While Woolworth was by then an enormously rich man, he was dissatisfied. His name was associated with good value and utility, but it was also, inevitably, associated with cheap goods, and Woolworth was sensitive on the subject. When the company moved into new and luxurious offices in New York in 1905, Woolworth exulted that “the five and ten cent business is no longer a Cheap John affair.” But the offices were rented, not owned by the company. Woolworth wanted his own building, one grand enough to proclaim to the world the glory of his name. Although he thought the Houses of Parliament in London to be the most beautiful building complex in the world and wanted his to be likewise in the Gothic style, Woolworth also wanted his building to be one of the new skyscrapers.

By the end of the nineteenth century two technologies, steel construction and the electric elevator, had come together and made the skyscraper possible. Masonry buildings cannot be much more than ten stories high because the necessary thickness of their walls is a function of their height. But steel could soar to the sky. When the electric elevator was introduced in 1889 and made unlimited vertical transportation possible, buildings in New York, in Chicago, and elsewhere began to do exactly that.

At the turn of the century a new world’s-tallest-building was going up every few years, and the word skyline entered the English language in 1896. By 1910 the world’s tallest was the Metropolitan Life Tower on New York’s Madison Square, seven hundred feet high and modeled after the campanile in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square.

Woolworth began to buy land on Broadway, across from the southern tip of City Hall Park, and he hired the architect Cass Gilbert, whose Gothic-style design for a building at 90 West Street he admired. At first Woolworth envisioned a building of moderate height, at least by skyscraper standards, perhaps twenty-five stories. Under Gilbert’s prodding, however, Woolworth’s ideas began to expand. The architect sent a surveyor out to find out exactly how tall the Metropolitan Life Tower was and then told his employer how high he had to go in order to have the world’s tallest building bear the name of Woolworth. Woolworth was aware of the advertising value and soon went along with the idea. Gilbert ended up designing a building 792 feet tall. Completed in 1913, it held the altitude record for fully sixteen years until it was finally surpassed by the Chrysler Building in 1929.

It wasn’t enough for Woolworth that his monument be grand and useful and beautiful—he wanted it to be profitable too.

Woolworth, who knew a great deal about retailing but little, if anything, about building skyscrapers, supervised everything closely anyway, making a thorough pest of himself with Gilbert and Louis Horowitz, the contractor. At one point he even suggested that since Gilbert and Horowitz were lucky to be connected with so prestigious a building, they should cut their fees. (Needless to say, they did no such thing.)

Woolworth was especially interested in cost control, perhaps because he owned the building personally, intending to rent space in it to the Woolworth Company, the Irving National Bank, and others. And he paid for the entire project in cash, $13,500,000 in all. The building—unique among New York skyscrapers—has never been mortgaged. But while Woolworth, as always, watched his nickels carefully, he was not afraid to spend as many as necessary to get top quality.

And top quality is exactly what Frank Woolworth got. No sooner was his building finished than he had the satisfaction of having it universally acclaimed a masterpiece. Gilbert had followed Louis Sullivan’s dictum that a skyscraper should be “a proud and soaring thing,” and Montgomery Schuyler, the leading architecture critic of his day, was dazzled: “How it cleaves the empyrean and makes the welkin ring as it glitters in the sunshine of high noon,” he wrote. “How impressively it looms above its fellows in spectral vagueness, in the gray of the dawn or the haze of twilight.”

No one has quibbled since. Today’s leading architecture critic, Paul Goldberger, says that the Woolworth Building “has an almost Mozartian quality to it, a sense of light, graceful detail applied to a firm and self-assured structure.” It is now a New York City landmark, and there can be few New Yorkers who do not hope that the curse of Ozymandias will long pass it by.

Woolworth must also have been delighted that his building immediately became world-famous and one of New York’s foremost tourist attractions, depicted on countless postcards. The building was visited by two hundred thousand people a year who paid to see the view from its observation level. (Now atop what is only New York’s eleventh-tallest building, the observation deck has been closed for many years.) But I suspect that what made Woolworth happiest of all was that his “Cathedral of Commerce,” grand and useful and beautiful as it was, immediately began to yield him a good, solid 6 percent return on his investment.