The World’s Tallest Building

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Of the skyscrapers that sprang up in American cities in the early years of this century and embodied in masonry and steel the swaggering vitality of American technology and American business enterprise, none took so firm a grip on the public imagination as the Woolworth Building. From the day that Frank W. Woolworth, the inventor of the five-and-ten-cent store, let it be known that he intended to erect the world’s tallest building on a site in lower Manhattan, the newspapers were filled with accounts of its construction and encomiums to its builders. The New York Sun compared the building to the Colossus of Rhodes, and described it as the “crowning glory of the builder’s art.” The Press ran a story headed WOOLWORTH BUILDING MARVEL OF THE AGE . In 1912, as work on the 792-foot structure was nearing an end, a Brooklyn Citizen reporter, sacrificing journalistic objectivity on the altar of patriotism, wrote that now the whole world would have to acknowledge that “for ingenuity, daring and effectiveness the American architects and engineers are far ahead of the master builders of this or any other age.”

To celebrate the completion of the building, Woolworth invited some eight hundred guests to a dinner honoring the architect, Cass Gilbert. The dinner was held on April 24, 1913, in an improvised banquet hall on the twenty-seventh floor of the new building, and the diners included such notables as the artist Charles Dana Gibson, the poet Edwin Markham, steel tycoons Charles Schwab and Elbert Gary, the financier Otto Kahn, the writer Richard Harding Davis, three U.S. senators, seventy-eight congressmen, and the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. At 7:30 the lights in the room were dimmed, and a Western Union operator flashed a signal to the White House, where President Wilson was waiting to press a button to light up the whole building with eighty thousand bulbs. “A second later,” the New York American reported, “waiting thousands in New York and its suburbs saw, flashing out in outlines of fire, the greatest mountain of steel and stone ever erected by man—the gigantic Woolworth Building.”

 
 

Later, after Woolworth had presented Gilbert with a silver loving cup big enough for a horse to drink from, a poem in Gilbert’s honor was read by the poet and essayist William Winter. Winter had retired in 1909 after a long career as the dramatic critic of the New York Tribune , where he had been known to his colleagues as Weeping Willie because of the lugubrious elegies he composed to mourn the passing of actors whose work he had admired. The poem he produced on this occasion began dolefully enough, referring to such long-vanished centers of civilization as Babylon and Tyre, and noting that “ravens flit and serpents hiss / O’er what was once Persepolis.” But by the time Winter had reached the tenth stanza his poetic tears had dried. New York, he seemed to be saying, might be saved from the fate of Babylon and Tyre by great artists like Cass Gilbert, chosen by destiny “To hail the future and ordain / Triumphant Beauty’s perfect reign.”

The organization of the banquet—and, presumably, the enlistment of President Wilson’s services as an electrician- was the work of a publicity man named Hugh McAtamney. He had been retained by Woolworth on the theory that the Woolworth Building, if properly publicized, would operate as a great magnet, pulling millions of new customers into Woolworth stores all over the United States. Long before the building was finished McAtamney had been planting newspaper stories celebrating the wonders of a country where a man who had started out as a $3.5oa-week store clerk was not only putting up the tallest building the world had ever seen, but was paying its entire cost- $13,500,000—out of his own pocket.

But popular fascination with the building, whose fiftyeighth-floor observation gallery drew more than 300,000 visitors a year during the igao’s, was not simply a product of inspired press-agentry. The Woolworth Building was not only the tallest building in the world, it proclaimed its tallness in a way that filled the beholder’s breast with awe and wonder. This was not generally true of skyscrapers built before 1913, most of which were actually designed so as to play down their height. A case in point was the Metropolitan Life Tower, which stood (and still stands) on Madison Square, two miles north of the Woolworth Building. Modeled on the campanile of St. Mark’s, in Venice, it was, when it was completed in 1910, the tallest building in the world. But as John Burchard and Albert Bush-Brown complained in The Architecture of America , the architect was seemingly unable to top off the structure “without stuttering through successive strata of balconies, cornices, roofs, more cornices, pavilions and spires”—all of which had the effect of seeming to press the building down into the ground. By contrast, the Gothic design of the Woolworth Building featured prominent white piers that soared straight up into the sky for seven hundred feet before terminating in flying buttresses and the lacy filigree of the building’s crown.