The World’s Tallest Building


Good sense and the passage of time require some tempering of Schuyler’s praise. The Woolworth Building’s tapering crown, guarded by its four satellite pinnacles, looks a bit stiff and awkward, and Gilbert’s Gothic façade lacks the serenity of the very best skyscrapers. Compared with the best of Sullivan’s work, such as the beautiful miniature skyscraper he built on Manhattan’s Bleecker Street in 1897, with its marvelous frieze of art nouveau angels, the Woolworth Building seems a little fussy.

But its faults are minor. Surrounded by boring steeland-glass boxes, the mechanical products of modern architects working routinely in the International Style, the Woolworth Building still has the power to amaze and delight. The bands of Gothic ornamentation that mark the base of the tower, and each of its setbacks, refresh the eye, but do not interrupt its journey as it is drawn upward by the great piers that both conceal and display the building’s steel skeleton. On entering the lobby the visitor is instantly infected with the fever of Woolworth’s - uninhibited and childlike love of the magnificent. The walls are of golden marble from the Isle of Skyros. The high, vaulted Persian ceiling is a glittering green and gold and blue mosaic of stylized flower patterns and exotic birds. To the rear, a noble marble stairway leads up to a branch office of the Irving Trust Company, whose predecessor, the Irving National Bank, once had its headquarters there. High up on the walls, seeming to hold up the ends of the richly ornamented crossbeams, are sculptured figures of Woolworth and some of the people associated with him in the building’s planning and construction. They include Cass Gilbert, who is shown holding in his arms, and gravely contemplating through opaque pince-nez, a huge model of the Woolworth Building; Gunvald Aus, the building’s structural engineer, who is shown measuring a girder; and Lewis E. Pierson, president of the Irving Bank, who is shown reading the tape coming out of a stock ticker.

A recent historian of the Woolworth Building, Robert A. Jones, suggests that these playful caricatures “belie the ostensible dignity of the setting.” He adds, “The whole resplendent display suggests that, at heart, the artists- in behalf of their client—were teasing mammon.” But the teasing was clearly affectionate. In Gilbert’s view, and in the view of his chief designer, Thomas Johnson, who was responsible for the caricatures, there was nothing wrong- indeed, there was everything right—with a man who wanted to celebrate so exuberantly his own triumphant career as a merchant. And as Jones further points out, it was what the Woolworth Building represented, more than what it was in itself, that fascinated people. A perfect expression of the spirit of America in the 1920*5, the great structure symbolized for hundreds of millions of people all over the world, most of whom had seen it only as portrayed in magazines or on postcards, the wealth, the power, and, above all, the exhilarating promise of a country where a poor farm boy like Frank Woolworth could become as rich as Croesus.

In 1929, when the Chrysler Building was completed, the Woolworth Building lost the title it had held for sixteen years, and today it ranks only eighteenth in height among the skyscrapers of the world. But none of the newer and taller American skyscrapers, built in a time when the world is no longer so entranced by the vigor and the romance of American business enterprise, has generated quite the same excitement. A glimpse of the Empire State Building, however astonishing, does not induce reactions of the kind recorded in The Spectator in 1925 by the British biologist and essayist Julian S. Huxley. “Who can forget,” he wrote, “the Woolworth Tower (that monument reared on dimes and nickels), as seen from the river as the liner passes, or when it pulls the eye up to incredible heights as you emerge from the subway at City Hall? It is like a cross between a cathedral and one of Mad King Ludwig’s palaces, manured to fantastic heights by the glorious megalomaniac spirit of New York. … What matter if ecclesiastical Tudor Gothic, richly gilt, seems out of place in an office-building? It is a fairy story come gigantically and triumphantly to life, and can never be forgotten.”