- Historic Sites
The World’s Tallest Building
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
The esthetic problems that Gilbert was called on to solve were a lot more formidable than the purely technical ones. For more than thirty years, ever since the invention of steel-frame construction and high-speed elevators had made skyscrapers possible, architects had been arguing about how they should look. One faction, centered in New York, thought that skyscrapers, like all large public buildings, should be designed in a classical or Renaissance mode. A rival school, centered in Chicago, whose most eloquent spokesman was Louis Sullivan, considered this esthetically dishonest. Members of this school held that since the skyscraper was a radically different kind of building from any the world had seen before, its form should express that difference. In their view, a properly designed skyscraper should seem to glory in its height. It should impress the beholder with the fact that it was not a pile of stone, like the Washington Monument, but a steel cage enclosed in a tight-fitting skin of glass and masonry. And it should owe nothing to classical, Renaissance, or any other architectural forms of the past.
Gilbert subscribed to all but the last of these propositions. Years later, in explaining why he had chosen Gothic forms and ornamentation for the Woolworth Building, he observed huffily that there had not been time to invent “a new type of architectural detail at all equivalent to that which so beautifully adorns the medieval structures of Europe and which took three hundred years to develop.” This ignored the fact that back before the turn of the century Louis Sullivan had been ornamenting the façades of skyscrapers with luxuriant but delicate forms of his own invention—forms that constituted, along with Tiffany glass, America’s main contribution to art nouveau . But while Gilbert was a resourceful designer, he was not an inspired one, and doubtless he knew better than to try to do what Sullivan had done.
In any case, it is unlikely that Woolworth would have let him make the attempt. Woolworth knew very little about architecture, but he knew what he liked, and what he liked was old architecture. As the historian Merle Curti has observed of this era, “The conception of art as a relic of past grandeur and as something to be acquired as an evidence of success and ‘culture’ dominated the thought of the new men of wealth.” At his first meeting with Gilbert, Woolworth produced a photograph of a Victorian Gothic building—although Woolworth did not know what building it was, Gilbert recognized it as the Victoria Tower of the Parliament Building in London—and said that something like that was what he had in mind. This was quite agreeable to Gilbert, who had already shown, with his West Street Building, that by using Gothic forms he could both emphasize the upward thrust of a skyscraper and reveal—or at least indicate—the secrets of its construction.
To be sure, a purely Gothic structure was out of the question. The great architects of the Middle Ages had got their effects in part by using broad areas of windowless wall space, and such areas were ruled out by Woolworth’s insistence that windows must run in continuous bands across the building, so that the interior space could be subdivided into large or small offices, with even the smallest offices having adequate light. Furthermore, medieval builders had broken up the planes of their exterior walls with deep recesses and bold projections, a privilege that was denied to Gilbert because its exercise would have cost the building’s owner tens of thousands of square feet of rentable floor space.
But within these limitations Gilbert gave his client a building as Gothic in spirit as a reasonable man could ask for. Although he went about designing it in a spirit that at times verged on religious exaltation—“The mounting chords of [Verdi’s] Stabat Mater kept sounding in my mind while I was piling up that building,” he recalled later—he testily denied that he had set out to build a secular cathedral. In the early stages of the building’s design, he wrote, he had studied such medieval masterworks as Brussels’ City Hall, and the great Cloth Hall at Ypres, and his aim had been to “express the idea of a civic or commercial building rather than of an ecclesiastical one.” He went on to suggest, without naming names, that people like the “noted divine,” Dr. Cadman, might have been well advised to leave architectural criticism to people who knew what they were talking about.
Most architectural critics, while recognizing that the Woolworth Building was not a cathedral, agreed with Dr. Cadman that it was a masterpiece. Montgomery Schuyler, perhaps the most widely read critic of the day, was nearly as effusive in his praise as the Brooklyn minister. “How it cleaves the empyrean and makes the welkin ring as it glitters in the sunshine of high noon,” he wrote. “How impressively it looms above its fellows in spectral vagueness, in the gray of the dawn or the haze of twilight.”