Building the World’s Tallest Building
Retailer Frank W. Woolworth commissioned his namesake building in 1910, a year after the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company moved into their 700-foot tower on Madison Square, just a block away from the triangle-shaped Flatiron Building. The Metropolitan Life Tower had become the world’s tallest building at that time, having taken over that title from the New York headquarters of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, completed in 1908.
Like the builders of the Singer and Met Life towers before him, Woolworth wanted his new building to be the tallest in the world. He worked closely with his architect, Cass Gilbert, during construction to ensure the achievement of this goal; as a result, the total cost of building the tower expanded from $5 million to around $13.5 million. Woolworth financed the project in cash, with no loans or help from developers; this gave him an unusual degree of freedom in its design and construction.
Design and Construction
Gilbert, who trained at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and worked briefly at the prestigious New York firm McKim, Mead and White, had attracted national attention for his work designing the Minnesota state capitol in St. Paul. He and Woolworth decided on a Beaux-Arts design with ornate Gothic detail, reflecting Woolworth’s vision of himself as a descendant of the great medieval merchants of the past. Construction, which was completed in 1913, set a record for speed, foreshadowing the high-speed skyscraper building projects of the early 1930s, including the Empire State Building.
The massive base of the Woolworth Building stretched over a full block on Broadway between Park Place and Barclay Street, across from what is now City Hall Park. Built over a steel frame, the slender tower emerging above drew nearly universal acclaim, and the entire design became a model for skyscrapers that would come after it. In addition to its stunning white terracotta façade with subtle colored accents, the Woolworth Building won raves for its luxurious interior finishings, including a cathedral-like lobby with mosaics, sculpture and a gold-decked ceiling. Open to the public for years, the lobby was decorated with vivid caricatures of the frugal Woolworth counting his dimes, and Gilbert holding a model of the building in his arms.
A Manhattan Landmark
As part of a lavish opening ceremony on April 24, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson pressed a button in the White House that lit up the interior floors and exterior floodlights (a new innovation at the tine) of the Woolworth Building, so that the entire façade was illuminated. Also at this ceremony, Reverend C. Parkes Cadman gave the building its enduring nickname: the “Cathedral of Commerce.” In fact, Woolworth headquarters only occupied a floor and a half of the completed building; the owner hoped to make a profit by renting out the rest. Among the building’s groundbreaking features, apart from the exterior lighting, were its water supply system and its high-speed electric elevators, which offered both local and express service. In addition to offices, the Woolworth Building contained a shopping arcade, health club, barber shop, restaurant and social club.
At 792 feet and 60 stories, the Woolworth Building was not only the tallest building in the world in 1913, but the second-tallest structure, after the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It would remain the world’s tallest building for 17 years, until the nearby tower at 40 Wall Street was completed; the Chrysler Building (1930) and the Empire State Building (1931) later dwarfed both. Made a National Historic Landmark in 1966, the Woolworth Building is still one of the 50 tallest buildings in the United States and one of the 20 tallest in New York City. It remains a popular sight on the New York City skyline, although its observation deck, once open to the public, closed in the mid-20th century.