When the Woolworth Tower opened one hundred years ago, Frank Woolworth wanted to attract tourists. You could pay a small fee to ride to the observation deck of the Tower and there find the ubiquitous gift shop. Ladies could enjoy the tea shop, gentlemen the Ratskellar. What they wouldn’t have found was a Woolworth’s which Frank considered too tacky for his “cathedral of commerce”–a catchphrase attributed to him, but actually spoken by a priest.
How fitting for this quasi Gothic Revival tower, with its Byzantine-Romanesque Revival interior. The idea was to build a cathedral for American business, using similar construction concepts as a medieval cathedral. Small problem. This building is 790 feet high, the tallest skyscraper in the world when it was built, and the limestone walls would have had to be 20 or so feet thick to support the colossal weight. Instead, the building embodies modernity and New York in its glory–steel construction with a terracotta facade.
Terracotta is basically clay, an inexpensive material, and skilled immigrant labor was cheap for the hire. Frank paid the rock bottom price of $13.5 million, in cash, for his building. The result was a spectacular palace with ornate carvings inside and out, and a lobby meant to wow! The headquarters for Woolworth took up less than two of the 55 stories, and the rest was leased on spec. So that lobby was the sales pitch. Barrel vaults, arched throughways, and a dome open up the fairly narrow space in a spectacular way. You can see from these pictures how luxurious the mosaic ceiling, wall murals to Labor and Commerce, elevators by Tiffany, and marble from Greece make the space.
Architect Cass Gilbert turned the stone masons loose and let them carve according to their own artistic drive. The resulting grotesques are witty and wonderful. My favorites, of course, are of Frank Woolworth counting his fives and dimes and of Gilbert holding a model of the building. Grotesques were used inside cathedrals to scare away demons, and while Gilbert is certainly a benign figure, Woolworth’s portrait grotesque may just do the job.
There are plenty of dirty little secrets, or not so secret problems. From the beginning, the terracotta has torpedoed off the facade. The attempts to fix the problem with concrete exacerbated it with the increased weight. The building facade is basically continually under inspection. The beautiful skylight was so drafty that it grew icicles that crashed down below, before being permanently closed off. The basement pool, always intended for gentlemen, had an unexpected use. When it became part of a Jack Lalane exercise studio, it attracted the underground gay male bathhouse type. The building management, in disgust, eventually didn’t renew the lease of the exercise studio.
But who cares about that now? For some short period of time, you can still get in the building for a tour–no peeks otherwise. Then when the tower finishes converting its luxury condos, priced at several tens of millions each, the building will clamp back down. Not what Frank Woolworth wanted at all. No insularity for him. Instead, he built this out-of-this world celebration for the spirit of business, to be rejoiced in by all.