The World’s Tallest Building

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Although Gilbert was impelled by professional pride to take strong exception to many of his client’s ideas, he seems to have concluded that Woolworth had a perfect right to do whatever he liked with the thirty-foot-square room on the building’s twenty-fourth floor that had been reserved for Woolworth’s private office. For a long time Woolworth himself was not sure what kind of décor he wanted, but in the summer of 1913, while touring France with his wife and his wife’s sister, he had an inspiration. “Stopping one day in Compiègne,” his biographer writes, “they visited Napoleon’s Palace. Entering the famous Empire Room, it occurred to Woolworth in a flash that here was the answer to the problem. … He, too, would have an Empire Room modeled upon Napoleon’s, and furnished and decorated even more elaborately.”

He began at once to buy suitable antiques and objets d’art , and when he got back to New York he called in a decorator to carry out his ideas. In a letter dated February 20, 1914, and addressed to “all stores, United States, Canada and Great Britain,” he described the result: “the handsomest office in the country and possibly the world.” He went on to give an inventory of its furnishings, reporting that they included wall panels and wainscoting of Vert Campan marble from the north of Italy; a mahogany Empire desk, three feet nine inches by seven feet six inches; two large round-back armchairs, upholstered in red and pink and gold tapestry, that had been copied from the famous Throne Chair at Fontainebleau; a bronze bust of Napoleon posing as Julius Caesar (“He liked to look as much like Caesar as possible, you know”); and an elaborate mantel clock “reported to have been given to Napoleon by the Emperor of Russia over 100 years ago.” The room also contained a large portrait of Napoleon in his coronation robes, copied from a painting at Versailles. After Woolworth’s death, in 1919, it was replaced by a portrait of Woolworth himself.

 
 
 
 

From an engineering standpoint the Woolworth Building presented its designers with no notably difficult or novel challenges. By 1910 builders like Louis Horowitz were thoroughly familiar with steel-frame construction, in which the weight of a building is supported not by its walls but by interior columns of steel. This was how all skyscrapers were built—no one had figured out any other way to erect a very tall building without making its walls impossibly thick at the base—and the Woolworth Building differed structurally from its predecessors mainly in being taller.

With little else to boast about in the way of technological marvels, Hugh McAtamney concentrated on the building’s elevators. They were not only the fastest in the world, he informed the press, but they were the first whose position could be determined by a glance at the winking lights on a signal panel, and the first whose movements could be controlled by a dispatcher in telephonic communication with each of his operators.

McAtamney also worked hard to reassure prospective tenants and visitors that they would be protected by every safety device known to elevator science. This was an important fact to emphasize, for elevators at the time were rightly regarded as only a little less dangerous than airplanes. (During the previous three years, the New York Tribune reported in 1912, published data indicated that 2,671 Americans had been killed or injured in elevator accidents.) McAtamney pointed out, among other things, that the elevator shafts in the Woolworth Building were constructed so that, if all other safeguards should fail, a plummeting car would act like a giant piston, compressing the air beneath it into a cushion that would bring the car to a gentle stop.

To draw attention to this feature, it was announced that the inventor of the system, a Mr. F. T. Ellithorpe, would personally test its efficacy. Explaining to the New York Sun how such a test was usually conducted, Ellithorpe said it was his practice to have the test car hoisted to the top of the shaft by a single heavy rope instead of the usual wire cable. “With a long pole, to which is secured a sharp blade, I am able to reach the suspending rope,” he said. “Everything being in readiness, I poke this pole through the top of the cage and saw away at the hempen cable.” Displaying a lively gift for narrative, Ellithorpe continued, “Strand by strand it parts faster than I can describe it, and then, with a sound like a muffled pistol shot, the last fibres yield under the tugging load of the car and down the shaft the elevator goes whizzing.” As it turned out, Ellithorpe was not in the test car when it whizzed down from the forty-fifth floor of the Woolworth Building to the bottom of the shaft six hundred feet below. In his place were seven thousand pounds of ballast and a glass of water, and McAtamney was able to announce that the air cushion had been so effective that when the car came to rest not a single drop had been spilled.