The World’s Tallest Building


Gilbert also had to put up with Woolworth’s penny pinching. This took the form, at times, of trying to get people to work for him for nothing, or for a fraction of what they usually were paid. Thus after agonizing for months over the choice of a general contractor, Woolworth told Louis J. Horowitz, president of the Thompson-Starrett Company, one of New York’s leading construction firms, that he would like Horowitz to have the job. But he added that he knew another builder who was ready to do the job for nothing—for the sake of the prestige, Woo !worth said- and that he thought Horowitz should do likewise. (“I had the feeling,” Horowitz recalled later, “that Mr. Woolworth was turning on me, as if it were a fire hose, his customary way of buying goods for his five-and-ten-cent stores.”) Horowitz continued to insist on a $300,000 fee, and eventually Woolworth siened on his terms.


A month or so later Woolworth tried the same trick on Gilbert, suggesting that other architects just as distinguished as Gilbert would have been happy to take on the Woolworth Building job for a lot less than the five per cent fee that the two men had agreed on earlier. Gilbert, who had been working on plans for the building for nearly a year, was not impressed. “I can only say,” he wrote Woolworth, “that if the proposition had been offered to me I would have refused it but that is neither here nor there.” In the same letter Gilbert noted that over the past three months his office had “entirely reorganized the plans of your building, working out its great structural, mechanical and engineering problems and its exceptional problems of design, and filing the drawings with the Building Department in just ninety calendar days. If there is any record of structural planning to equal this I am not familiar with it.” Gilbert added that he had been impelled to accomplish this feat “in order to progress the building so as to save you the heavy interest charges on the investment and so this office force has been at work night and day and I have paid for the expensive ‘overtime’ myself.”

There was apparently no further talk of Gilbert taking a cut in his fee. Still, as construction got under way Woolworth, who spent many hours each week going over accounts submitted by the contractors, repeatedly called on Gilbert to explain instances of what he considered to be unpardonable waste or extravagance. This was, of course, Woolworth’s right, but he exercised it with infuriating diligence. In September, 1911, for example, Gilbert wrote Thompson-Starrett that Woolworth had complained to him about “an item of $2.50 per day for the services of a telephone boy at the building.” In a mood, one may guess, of exasperated resignation, Gilbert went on, “It would appear that this is a large price to pay for such services, and I would ask your explanation thereof and in doing so have no doubt that you can place before Mr. Woolworth information that will satisfy him or if some error has been made … that you will make correction accordingly.” The record contains no hint of what became of the telephone boy.

Even more trying to Gilbert than Woolworth’s indecisiveness and his attacks of stinginess was his insistence that he be consulted about matters that most clients would have been delighted to leave to the architect. This was no doubt to be expected of a man who for years had personally picked every item sold in his stores, and who, even when he was running a million-dollar business, would sometimes walk into a store, unannounced, and rearrange the window display. But expected or not, his fussiness about details was aggravating. In February, 1911, for example, Gilbert noted in a memorandum that he had warned Woolworth that “the men in the office were standing around sucking their thumbs, marking time,” because of Woolworth’s continuing reluctance to commit himself irrevocably to the 750-foot-plus building that he had approved in principle two weeks earlier. At the same time, Gilbert wrote, Woolworth was taking up many hours of his time, and the time of his associates, going “into details of a more or less unmaterial character at this time such as the elevator signal service, mail chutes, bulletin boards, etc., etc.” On later occasions he argued with Gilbert about such matters as the proper width of the corridor doors—Gilbert wanted to make them thirty-eight inches wide, but Woolworth thought thirty-six inches was wide enough—and the question of whether or not there should be liquid soap dispensers in the washrooms. He tried hard, though unsuccessfully, to persuade Gilbert to equip the building with steel radiators instead of the cast-iron radiators that Gilbert favored. He personally picked (and then changed his mind about) the transom lifts to be used on the corridor doors, and, shortly before Christmas of 1911, he visited the offices of the Sanitas Manufacturing Company to look over its line of toilets and other bathroom fixtures. Four months later, Gilbert’s office records disclose, Woolworth met with one of Gilbert’s senior associates and approved the use of Sanitas toilet seats throughout the building. At the same meeting he settled on the design of the levers that would operate the men’s room urinals.