- Historic Sites
The World’s Tallest Building
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
Woolworth liked opulence in his business as well as his personal life, a taste whose indulgence he justified on the ground that it was good public relations. “You have no idea the impression our fine new office makes on visitors,” he wrote in a letter to the company’s store managers in 1905. “The five and ten cent business is no longer a Cheap John affair.” At the time, the company had just moved into new quarters in lower Manhattan, overlooking City Hall Park, where Woolworth worked at a great mahogany-andgold desk in a richly furnished green-and-gold office that Winkler describes as “a chromatic joy.” But impressive as this was, Woolworth was not satisfied. He felt that he and the company must have a building of their own, one which would advertise not just to business visitors, but to the whole world, the wealth and scope of the enterprise he had founded. And so in 1909 he bought land on Broadway, on the west side of City Hall Park, and the following spring he asked Cass Gilbert to design a suitable company headquarters to be erected on this site.
Cass Gilbert was fifty years old in 1910, a tall man, with a lofty forehead, who wore rimless pince-nez and an imposing handlebar moustache. According to the Dictionary of American Biography , he was “purposely impressive in manner and rather pompous at times.” Gilbert’s biographer adds maliciously, “It was said in the Century Club in New York that he could give the most convincing exposition of the obvious that had ever been heard there.” As a young man he had served an apprenticeship to Stanford White. Later, in practice for himself—first in St. Paul, Minnesota, and then in New York—he had designed a number of large and important buildings, including the Minnesota State Capitol and the elaborately neoclassical United States Custom House on Battery Park in Manhattan.
Among architects Gilbert was perhaps admired more for his skill in handling big and difficult jobs than for his felicity as a designer. Nevertheless, it was Gilbert’s idea of how a skyscraper should look, rather than his reputation for efficiency, that seems to have recommended him to Woolworth. In 1905 Gilbert had completed a twenty-threestory Gothic-styled office building at 90 West Street, just a few minutes’ walk from the site where Woolworth planned to build. It was—and is—a building of considerable grace and elegance, conforming to the dictum of the great Chicago architect, Louis H. Sullivan, that a skyscraper should be “a proud and soaring thing.” Woolworth knew the building’s owner, General Howard Carroll, and it is likely that he settled on Gilbert as his architect because the clean vertical lines and intricate Gothic detail of the West Street building struck him as pretty much what he would like in a building of his own.
From the start of their association, Woolworth severely tested Gilbert’s well-established expertise in the handling of clients. While continually urging the architect to get on faster with the job, Woolworth repeatedly held things up by his own indecisiveness. To begin with, he was unable to decide how high a building he wanted. At first he talked of a forty-two-story structure, just tall enough to overtop the Singer Building, which was then the world’s secondtallest skyscraper, being exceeded in height only by the Metropolitan Life Tower. But in August, 1910, the two men met in London, and Woolworth said he had decided he could not afford to tie up as much money as would be needed for a forty-two-story building. He asked Gilbert to make plans for a building about twenty-five stories high, to which a tower might be added at a later time.
Within a few weeks the projected building began to grow again. By November, 1910, it had reached, on paper, a height of 620 feet, eight feet higher than the Singer Building. Before another month had passed, with Gilbert’s draftsmen hard at work designing the steel framework for a 020-foot building, Woolworth was telling Gilbert that he was not sure that 620 feet was tall enough. By going ninety or a hundred feet higher, he pointed out, they could overtop the Metropolitan Life Tower as well as the Singer Building, and make the Woolworth Building the tallest in the world.
This was fine by Gilbert. The architect had, in fact, egged Woolworth on by having the Metropolitan Life Tower measured, and providing Woolworth with the information that it was exactly seven hundred feet two inches tall. But Gilbert warned his vacillating client that if he wanted a seven-hundred-foot-plus building he would have to decide on it right away, or else incur the considerable cost of modifying the foundations of the building, work on which had already started, to carry the weight of a heavier structure. Even so, Woolworth hesitated for another month. Then, in January, 1911, he formally approved sketch plans for a building that would rise to a height of at least 750 feet, and the draftsmen in Gilbert’s office, throwing away the old drawings, began work at once on a new set