Woolworth’s Cathedral

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Ever since technology began to permit it, men of power have sought immortality in stone. Knowing that their deeds, however important, were ephemeral in the nature of things, they hoped that their tombs and statues and palaces might remind the world of their greatness. Shelley, in his haunting sonnet on Ozymandias, showed the essential barrenness of this idea, but that hasn’t stopped men in the least from erecting monuments to their own memories.

Before the Industrial Revolution, politics and military conquest were the main roads to power. With the advent of the steam engine the instruments of choice by which men sought power began to change, as did the means by which they displayed it. The opportunities for military conquest shrank nearly to the vanishing point, but the opportunities to make a great fortune in business vastly expanded.

As early as 1868 James Gordon Bennett noted in the New York Herald how much things had changed and yet stayed the same. “Men no longer attempt to rule by the sword,” he wrote in an editorial, “but they find in money a weapon as sharp and more effective; and having lost none of the old lust for power they seek to establish over their fellows the despotism of dollars.”

If the vast wealth created by the Industrial Revolution never quite amounted to a “despotism of dollars,” it certainly allowed the building of an unprecedented number of monuments to the glory of the creators of the new fortunes. The building of a suitable palace was usually the first step. The parade of mansions that slowly marched up New York’s Fifth Avenue in the nineteenth century, each grander and more elaborate than the last, was a fantastic and now largely lost example.

Cornelius Vanderbilt was, in his day, the king of kings of American railroading and the richest self-made man in the world. He was quite comfortable living downtown in his relatively modest house on Washington Place and left Fifth Avenue to his children and grandchildren. But he couldn’t entirely resist the temptation to immortalize himself. In 1869 he built a new freight warehouse in lower Manhattan for his New York and Hudson River Railroad, and he arranged for a grand monument to himself to be part of it. It amounted to nothing less than his autobiography, written in one hundred thousand pounds of bronze. The pediment of the building, thirty feet high and one hundred fifty feet long, was filled with depictions, in high relief, of Vanderbilt’s career in ships and railroads. These flanked a central statue of the Commodore himself, fully twelve feet high and weighing four tons.

Even before it was unveiled, the astonished observer from the Herald noted that “it is not so prodigious as the Pyramid of Cheops, nor so lofty as the Colossus of Rhodes, but it will do.” (Vanderbilt’s monument, alas, has also suffered the fate of Ozymandias’s. Today only the central statue survives, placed high on the south facade of Grand Central Terminal.)

Happily for ordinary mortals, Vanderbilt’s expression of his egotism in bronze was an exception among nineteenth-century plutocrats. Instead of erecting statues to themselves, these men of fortune largely sought to attach their names to things that were both grand and useful, serving the public as well as the vanity of their creators. New York City alone is filled with these efforts. Carnegie Hall, Cooper Union, Rockefeller University, Paley Park, and the Whitney and Guggenheim museums are just a few.

But Frank Winfield Woolworth, the greatest merchant of his day, was, like Vanderbilt, an exception among the monument builders of the Gilded Age. And like Vanderbilt, he was not much given to charity. He had made a great fortune a nickel at a time, and he was accustomed to watching those nickels carefully. Worth sixty-five million dollars, he was perfectly willing to keep his office staff late while he tracked down an unaccounted-for quarter missing from his change purse.

For Woolworth it wasn’t enough that his monument be grand, like Vanderbilt’s bronze, or grand and useful, like Carnegie’s concert hall. It wasn’t even enough that it be grand and useful and beautiful, like the New York Public Library. Woolworth wanted his monument to be all that and profitable too. The man who invented the five-and-dime had every intention of building a moneymaking monument to carry his name down through the ages.

Woolworth’s genius had been in seeing the possibilities in the low end of retailing. In 1879 he had set out on his own with $410 and opened a store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He stocked it with “Yankee notions,” the thread and needles and cheap tin cookware that peddlers had carried around rural America before the coming of the railroads. Nothing in Woolworth’s store cost more than a nickel, and it was an immediate success. By the end of the next year he had two stores (and had raised his price limit to ten cents, hence the “five-and-dime”). By 1889 he had 12; by 1899, 54. In 1909 he owned 238 stores, and his was the best-known name in American retailing.