- Historic Sites
The World’s Tallest Building
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
The building’s rich Gothic ornamentation also conveyed the uplifting thought that business enterprise in America was more than just a sordid struggle for material gain. This message made a particularly deep impression on S. Parkes Cadman, D.D., S.T.D., L.H.D. , the author of the foreword to an elegantly illustrated booklet about the building that Woolworth arranged to have printed up. Dr. Cadman, a Brooklyn clergyman sometimes identified in the local press simply as “the noted divine,” wrote, “When seen at nightfall bathed in electric light as with a garment, or in the lucid air of a summer morning, piercing space like a battlement of the paradise of God which St. John beheld, [the Woolworth Building] inspires feelings too deep even for tears. The writer looked upon it and at once cried out, ‘The Cathedral of Commerce’. …”
In 1913 Frank Woolworth was sixty-one years old and nearing the peak of a dazzling business career. Born on a farm in upstate New York, he had been seized by the notion, after years of clerking in small general stores, that buyers would flock to an establishment where there would be no haggling over prices; where the merchandise would be spread out so that everyone could inspect it for himself; and where—most important of all—no item would cost more than a dime. In 1879 Woolworth opened the world’s first successful five-and-ten-cent store, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Soon he had a small chain of such stores, each identified by the distinctive red front that was later to be copied by S. S. Kress, S. H. Kresge, and other competitors. As the chain grew, Woolworth was able to buy goods in larger and larger quantities and at lower and lower prices. This in turn enabled him to offer the public better bargains, thereby assuring the success of the new Woolworth stores that were soon being opened at a rate of twenty or thirty a year. In 1911 Woolworth persuaded the proprietors of four smaller chains to combine their businesses with his; when the merger was consummated he controlled a total of more than six hundred five-and-ten-cent stores in the United States, Canada, and England.
In the lobby of the Woolworth Building, hunched up under an ornate ceiling beam, there is a small sculptured caricature of Woolworth. He is shown nursing an oversize nickel, and it is a fact that in real life Woolworth watched nickels, and even pennies, very carefully. Once, in 1890, just before leaving on a trip to Germany, he sent a circular letter to his executives pointing out that “postage on letters to Bremen is five cents per half ounce so you must use thin paper and envelopes to save expense. …” Many years later, when he was making millions of dollars a year, he was not above keeping his confidential secretary and the office porter after hours to help him locate a quarter that had disappeared from his change purse. Like other self-made men, he extolled the virtues of hard work. “Many young men fail because they are not willing to sacrifice,” he once wrote. “No one ever built a business on thoughts of having a good time.”
But Woolworth saw no point in plain living for people who, like himself, had earned the right to live otherwise. His imposing stomach, customarily draped in a dark vest with white piping, testified to the quantities of food he ate. “He scorned exercise in any form,” his biographer, John K. Winkler, writes, “and at all hours of the day and night indulged a fondness for rich foods—lobster, rarebits, etc. He doted upon bananas, a delicacy of which he had been deprived in youth, and preferred them overripe.”
Woolworth also liked big houses and costly furnishings. From 1901 until his death in 1919 he lived mainly in a thirty-room mansion situated at Fifth Avenue and Eightieth Street in Manhattan, a home whose second-floor drawing room was equipped with a large organ. Although Woolworth had never managed to learn to play a musical instrument, and had a hard time carrying a tune, he had a passion for music. The organ was a mechanical one, activated, like a player piano, by rolls of perforated paper, and Woolworth liked to entertain friends by sitting at the console and pressing buttons that would throw the room into blackness and then flood it with colored light—now amber, now green, now deep mauve—to match the mood of the music.
Later, with the help of a vice president of the AeolianSkinner Organ Company, Woolworth contrived to add pictorial effects to these performances. In Winkler’s words, “Just before the opening of a great orchestral classic, with the room in darkness, a magnificent oil portrait of the composer—Wagner or Beethoven, Liszt or Mendelssohn— would appear in a panel at the top of the wall, at first faintly, then growing clearer and clearer until the vision was enveloped in light. So lifelike was the apparition that the composer himself seemed present, listening to his own music.” Still later Woolworth added meteorological effects. By pressing the right button, Winkler writes, he could make lightning flash, thunder crash, and “rain descend—behind the walls—in torrents so realistic as to make guests wonder how they were going to get home without a drenching.”