In 1913 the Woolworth Building was the tallest inhabited building in the world, and would remain so until the opening of the Chrysler Building, in 1929. It was built for F.W. Woolworth, a classic “self-made man” who rose from an impoverished background to establish F.W. Woolworth and Company, which at one time was the world’s largest merchandising operation. You can find more on in my previous post.
Woolworth opened his first successful store in 1879. His chain grew rapidly. By 1895 there were 28 stores. In 1912 there were 318 Woolworth stores in operation. That year F.W. Woolworth and Company was incorporated. With 596 stores and $65 million in capital, it was the world’s largest merchandising operation. Frank Woolworth was president of the new corporation. Originally with offices in the Sun Building, 280 Broadway, Woolworth decided to build his own headquarters. So in April 1910 Woolworth commissioned Gilbert to design the building on a site at Broadway and Park Place.
Cass Gilbert was one of the most prominent architects in the first quarter of the 20th century. He already built Alexander Hamilton Custom House ( now Museum of American Indians).
Woolworth wanted his new building to be the tallest in the world. He worked closely with his architect 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 paid in cash. For most of the twentieth century the building never had a mortgage -- something almost unheard of for such a large commercial structure. Woolworth said: My idea was purely commercial. I saw possibilities of making this the greatest income producing property in which I could invest my money.
Construction of the skyscraper's steel frame began August 15, 1911, and rose at the rate of 1½ stories a week. Woolworth decided to record the building's construction for posterity and employed photographer to document the construction of the building at regular intervals. These photographs were sent out to Woolworth's stores all over the country.
At its opening, the Woolworth Building was 60 stories tall - a thirty-story tower set upon a thirty story base. Woolworth Company only occupied one and a half stories of the building. The rest of the building was occupied by more than 1,000 tenants.
Woolworth promoted the skyscraper with a celebratory opening on April 24, 1913, staged as a great lighting spectacle. Eighty thousand incandescent bulbs illuminated the New York night.
Woolworth subsequently deployed an image of the skyscraper as a trademark, to build consumer loyalty and to sharpen the Woolworth brand identity.
Cass Gilbert, the architect of the building, wrote to a colleague, "I sometimes wish I had never built the Woolworth Building because I fear it may be regarded as my only work and you and I both know that whatever it may be in dimension and in certain lines it is after all only skyscraper."
In 1913 The Wall Street Journal wrote about the building: By its combination of Italian, French and Renaissance architecture with Gothic steeple, in creamy white stone and terra cotta, the result is a building unique and one of the most beautiful in the world. The structure contains 29 elevators, 87 miles of electrical wiring and can withstand wind speeds of 25 miles an hour.
Woolworth building is often called cathedral of commerce. Emile Zola, a French novelist (1840 –1902) called Le Bon Marche, the first department store of Paris, a “cathedral of commerce” . When a Londoner named Alan Francis visited New York soon after the skyscraper was built, he used the same words to describe the skyscraper: "cathedral of commerce". Several years later Samuel Parkes Cadman, a Brooklyn Congregational minister used "The Cathedral of Commerce" as a title for the booklet published in 1916.
The lobby of the building was one of the most spectacular of the early 20th century in New York City. It is covered in marble, has a vaulted ceiling, mosaics, a stained-glass ceiling light and bronze fittings. Woolworth spent an enormous amount of money on the lobby. It is one of the most lavish spaces in New York. A very prominent decorating firm was hired to do most of the work inside. They prepared barrel-vaulted mosaics filled with flowers and birds and other ornament that were modeled after the early Christian mosaics in Ravenna, Italy.
They were responsible for the stained-glass dome over the marble staircase that led to the Irving Bank. And it was they who put together the marble, the bronze, the plaster, the mosaics, and the stained glass—all of the different materials used to create this very special interior. Frescos titled 'Commerce' and 'Labor', and a dozen marble busts, including one each of Gilbert and Woolworth adorned the lobby.
For decades since the 1940s the lobby off-limits to the public making it among the city’s most exclusive landmarks. Now the great-granddaughter of the building's architect organized lobby tours. So the only sanctioned way to see the lobby is to book a tour, arranged by Helen Post Curry. Tours cost $15 for 30 minutes and $45 for 90 minutes.
When the building opened in 1913, one of its selling points was a health club complete with indoor pool and Turkish bath, open “day and night.” The pool was built and remained open until 1999, when it was finally drained.
Frank Woolworth set his office on the 25th floor. Woolworth idolized Napoleon Bonaparte. When he was a boy one of his favorite leisure activities was to visit with his brother Josef the abandoned house of Joseph Bonaparte, the brother of Napoleon's, which was nearby. For a while Joseph had been the King of Spain. Frank fancied being an Emperor!
Frank collected Napoleonic memorabilia and decorated his new office with items from his trove, including a life-sized portrait of the Emperor in his coronation robes, a bust of Napoleon as Julius Caesar, and a clock purported to have been given to Napoleon by Czar Alexander I of Russia.
In 2012 Alchemy Properties paid $68 million and converted the top 30 floors of the Woolworth Building into luxury apartments. Called “the Castle in the Sky,” the seven-floors penthouse has a two-story living room with a fireplace, an elevator and an outdoor observatory; the price is $110 million. Adjacent apartments that cover the entire 29th floor are listed for a combined $51.35 million.
The Woolworth Tower Residences will feature a 24-hour doorman, full-time on-site concierge, and personal mail delivery. Other exclusive amenities for residents include an entertainment lounge, a personal fitness studio, a pool, and a wine cellar with private wine storage for each residence.
Fantastic Beasts, is an upcoming British-American fantasy drama film inspired by the book of the same name by J. K. Rowling will be released on 18 November 2016 in the United States. In this film the Magical Congress of the United States of America (American version of the Ministry of Magic) is located inside the Woolworth building