THE WOOLWORTH BUILDING
233 Broadway, New York
The Woolworth Building, which towers 60 stories and 792 feet above Broadway was the tallest building in the world when it was completed in 1913. The building was financed in cash for a price tag of $13.5 million by the millionaire Frank W. Woolworth, who wanted it to be the tallest building in the world. He partnered with MIT graduate, the architect Cass Gilbert, to design the structure for him. Gilbert 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, completed in 1913, set a record for speed. The large base of the Woolworth Building stretched over a full block on Broadway between Park Place and Barclay Street. The tower emerging above drew universal acclaim, and the entire design became a model for skyscrapers that would come after it. In addition to its white terracotta façade with colored accents, the Woolworth Building was lauded 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.
As part of its spectacular 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 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.”
Woolworth headquarters only occupied a floor and a half of the completed building at the time, since the owner hoped to make a profit by renting out the rest. Among the building’s pioneering features, in addition to the exterior lighting, were its water supply system and its high-speed electric elevators, which offered both local and express service. At the time, the elevators in the building were the fastest ever built and featured a tapered shaft so that if the elevator ever fell it would be cushioned by air resistance instead of free falling down the chute. Woolworth and Gilbert also added self-sustaining heating, cooling, water supply, and fire protection to the building. A unique fire protection measure was the swimming pool drain that lead to the fire system so the water could be used to extinguish fires. There was also electrical power generation and was the first building to have its own power plant.
In addition to offices, the Woolworth Building contained a shopping arcade, health club, barber shop, restaurant and social club.
Today, FW Woolworth's original office is preserved and Landmarked along with the building.