The owners of the Woolworth Building today are struggling against a potentially desperate problem, one common to many other old skyscrapers: the threat that pieces of the structure will flake off and drop like so many bombs, to the peril of those on the streets below. In March, 1976, for example, a two-story section of bricks sheered off the side of a building on West Thirty-fourth Street in New York and plummetted to the sidewalk. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Not so the luckless pedestrian who paused for a moment at one of Chicago’s busiest intersections three years ago; a chunk of falling terra cotta crushed him like an ant. “One could be propelled into a trauma,” a New York maintenance contractor remarked in the New York Times , “in view of the potential hazards to life and limb.”
The problem is both natural and man-made. At the top of a building as high as the Woolworth, for instance, temperatures will vary tremendously within the space of a few hours, alternately swelling and contracting the surface until it is strained quite literally to the breaking point. High winds and the consequent—though minor—swaying involved add their own kinds of pressure. Some buildings may leak, letting the water gather around steel girders; rusting follows and swells until it pops off bricks or slabs of stone and terra-cotta facing. Finally, there is air pollution, an insidious assault that simply eats away at the stone, just as it has in poor, harried Venice.
Altogether, a dismal prospect, and one not easy to correct. One estimate has it that the most minimal repair work on the façades of such buildings runs to about one dollar a square foot—in the case of a structure with as much surface as the Woolworth Building, a matter of several hundred thousand dollars, at least. What to do? Well, until some cheap, practical means of restoration is found, the owners of the Woolworth Building have taken to draping its towers and turrets and gargoyles in huge nets in order to catch falling chunks, as the photograph above illustrates. A temporary and not altogether satisfactory solution, obviously. New Yorkers promenading the vicinity of Broadway and Park Place might reflect, as one contractor did: “We may be running into very dangerous times.”