- Historic Sites
The World’s Tallest Building
February 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 2
Of the skyscrapers that sprang up in American cities in the early years of this century and embodied in masonry and steel the swaggering vitality of American technology and American business enterprise, none took so firm a grip on the public imagination as the Woolworth Building. From the day that Frank W. Woolworth, the inventor of the five-and-ten-cent store, let it be known that he intended to erect the world’s tallest building on a site in lower Manhattan, the newspapers were filled with accounts of its construction and encomiums to its builders. The New York Sun compared the building to the Colossus of Rhodes, and described it as the “crowning glory of the builder’s art.” The Press ran a story headed WOOLWORTH BUILDING MARVEL OF THE AGE . In 1912, as work on the 792-foot structure was nearing an end, a Brooklyn Citizen reporter, sacrificing journalistic objectivity on the altar of patriotism, wrote that now the whole world would have to acknowledge that “for ingenuity, daring and effectiveness the American architects and engineers are far ahead of the master builders of this or any other age.”
To celebrate the completion of the building, Woolworth invited some eight hundred guests to a dinner honoring the architect, Cass Gilbert. The dinner was held on April 24, 1913, in an improvised banquet hall on the twenty-seventh floor of the new building, and the diners included such notables as the artist Charles Dana Gibson, the poet Edwin Markham, steel tycoons Charles Schwab and Elbert Gary, the financier Otto Kahn, the writer Richard Harding Davis, three U.S. senators, seventy-eight congressmen, and the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. At 7:30 the lights in the room were dimmed, and a Western Union operator flashed a signal to the White House, where President Wilson was waiting to press a button to light up the whole building with eighty thousand bulbs. “A second later,” the New York American reported, “waiting thousands in New York and its suburbs saw, flashing out in outlines of fire, the greatest mountain of steel and stone ever erected by man—the gigantic Woolworth Building.”
Later, after Woolworth had presented Gilbert with a silver loving cup big enough for a horse to drink from, a poem in Gilbert’s honor was read by the poet and essayist William Winter. Winter had retired in 1909 after a long career as the dramatic critic of the New York Tribune , where he had been known to his colleagues as Weeping Willie because of the lugubrious elegies he composed to mourn the passing of actors whose work he had admired. The poem he produced on this occasion began dolefully enough, referring to such long-vanished centers of civilization as Babylon and Tyre, and noting that “ravens flit and serpents hiss / O’er what was once Persepolis.” But by the time Winter had reached the tenth stanza his poetic tears had dried. New York, he seemed to be saying, might be saved from the fate of Babylon and Tyre by great artists like Cass Gilbert, chosen by destiny “To hail the future and ordain / Triumphant Beauty’s perfect reign.”
The organization of the banquet—and, presumably, the enlistment of President Wilson’s services as an electrician- was the work of a publicity man named Hugh McAtamney. He had been retained by Woolworth on the theory that the Woolworth Building, if properly publicized, would operate as a great magnet, pulling millions of new customers into Woolworth stores all over the United States. Long before the building was finished McAtamney had been planting newspaper stories celebrating the wonders of a country where a man who had started out as a $3.5oa-week store clerk was not only putting up the tallest building the world had ever seen, but was paying its entire cost- $13,500,000—out of his own pocket.
But popular fascination with the building, whose fiftyeighth-floor observation gallery drew more than 300,000 visitors a year during the igao’s, was not simply a product of inspired press-agentry. The Woolworth Building was not only the tallest building in the world, it proclaimed its tallness in a way that filled the beholder’s breast with awe and wonder. This was not generally true of skyscrapers built before 1913, most of which were actually designed so as to play down their height. A case in point was the Metropolitan Life Tower, which stood (and still stands) on Madison Square, two miles north of the Woolworth Building. Modeled on the campanile of St. Mark’s, in Venice, it was, when it was completed in 1910, the tallest building in the world. But as John Burchard and Albert Bush-Brown complained in The Architecture of America , the architect was seemingly unable to top off the structure “without stuttering through successive strata of balconies, cornices, roofs, more cornices, pavilions and spires”—all of which had the effect of seeming to press the building down into the ground. By contrast, the Gothic design of the Woolworth Building featured prominent white piers that soared straight up into the sky for seven hundred feet before terminating in flying buttresses and the lacy filigree of the building’s crown.
The building’s rich Gothic ornamentation also conveyed the uplifting thought that business enterprise in America was more than just a sordid struggle for material gain. This message made a particularly deep impression on S. Parkes Cadman, D.D., S.T.D., L.H.D. , the author of the foreword to an elegantly illustrated booklet about the building that Woolworth arranged to have printed up. Dr. Cadman, a Brooklyn clergyman sometimes identified in the local press simply as “the noted divine,” wrote, “When seen at nightfall bathed in electric light as with a garment, or in the lucid air of a summer morning, piercing space like a battlement of the paradise of God which St. John beheld, [the Woolworth Building] inspires feelings too deep even for tears. The writer looked upon it and at once cried out, ‘The Cathedral of Commerce’. …”
In 1913 Frank Woolworth was sixty-one years old and nearing the peak of a dazzling business career. Born on a farm in upstate New York, he had been seized by the notion, after years of clerking in small general stores, that buyers would flock to an establishment where there would be no haggling over prices; where the merchandise would be spread out so that everyone could inspect it for himself; and where—most important of all—no item would cost more than a dime. In 1879 Woolworth opened the world’s first successful five-and-ten-cent store, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Soon he had a small chain of such stores, each identified by the distinctive red front that was later to be copied by S. S. Kress, S. H. Kresge, and other competitors. As the chain grew, Woolworth was able to buy goods in larger and larger quantities and at lower and lower prices. This in turn enabled him to offer the public better bargains, thereby assuring the success of the new Woolworth stores that were soon being opened at a rate of twenty or thirty a year. In 1911 Woolworth persuaded the proprietors of four smaller chains to combine their businesses with his; when the merger was consummated he controlled a total of more than six hundred five-and-ten-cent stores in the United States, Canada, and England.
In the lobby of the Woolworth Building, hunched up under an ornate ceiling beam, there is a small sculptured caricature of Woolworth. He is shown nursing an oversize nickel, and it is a fact that in real life Woolworth watched nickels, and even pennies, very carefully. Once, in 1890, just before leaving on a trip to Germany, he sent a circular letter to his executives pointing out that “postage on letters to Bremen is five cents per half ounce so you must use thin paper and envelopes to save expense. …” Many years later, when he was making millions of dollars a year, he was not above keeping his confidential secretary and the office porter after hours to help him locate a quarter that had disappeared from his change purse. Like other self-made men, he extolled the virtues of hard work. “Many young men fail because they are not willing to sacrifice,” he once wrote. “No one ever built a business on thoughts of having a good time.”
But Woolworth saw no point in plain living for people who, like himself, had earned the right to live otherwise. His imposing stomach, customarily draped in a dark vest with white piping, testified to the quantities of food he ate. “He scorned exercise in any form,” his biographer, John K. Winkler, writes, “and at all hours of the day and night indulged a fondness for rich foods—lobster, rarebits, etc. He doted upon bananas, a delicacy of which he had been deprived in youth, and preferred them overripe.”
Woolworth also liked big houses and costly furnishings. From 1901 until his death in 1919 he lived mainly in a thirty-room mansion situated at Fifth Avenue and Eightieth Street in Manhattan, a home whose second-floor drawing room was equipped with a large organ. Although Woolworth had never managed to learn to play a musical instrument, and had a hard time carrying a tune, he had a passion for music. The organ was a mechanical one, activated, like a player piano, by rolls of perforated paper, and Woolworth liked to entertain friends by sitting at the console and pressing buttons that would throw the room into blackness and then flood it with colored light—now amber, now green, now deep mauve—to match the mood of the music.
Later, with the help of a vice president of the AeolianSkinner Organ Company, Woolworth contrived to add pictorial effects to these performances. In Winkler’s words, “Just before the opening of a great orchestral classic, with the room in darkness, a magnificent oil portrait of the composer—Wagner or Beethoven, Liszt or Mendelssohn— would appear in a panel at the top of the wall, at first faintly, then growing clearer and clearer until the vision was enveloped in light. So lifelike was the apparition that the composer himself seemed present, listening to his own music.” Still later Woolworth added meteorological effects. By pressing the right button, Winkler writes, he could make lightning flash, thunder crash, and “rain descend—behind the walls—in torrents so realistic as to make guests wonder how they were going to get home without a drenching.”
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.”