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Woolworth Building: Cathedral in the Clouds

Jeffrey Syken

One fine day, a very young Frank Winfield Woolworth went to Watertown, N.Y. with his brother “Sum” (Charles Sumner Woolworth) with the intention of buying their mother a present for her birthday. The boys had, after a years’ effort, saved fifty-cents – enough, as it turned out, to buy a scarf but not enough to buy the matching gloves. The store clerks gathered around to mock and ridicule the boys for their poverty. Infuriated, they walked out and took their business elsewhere. It was a valuable lesson for both brothers, but especially for Frank. He determined then that no customer of his would ever be treated so shabbily, no matter what amount of money they intended, or had, to spend. With the lesson learned and the realization that pre-priced merchandise selling for a nickel or a dime was the key to success, he pursued the idea until he had built a “five and dime empire” by the turn of the century.

Admittedly, FW was the world’s worst salesman. Thus, he determined early on that he must make it simple and easy to buy from him. His strength lay in purchasing merchandise for his stores and negotiating with suppliers. This often took FW to Europe on buying and sightseeing trips. When in Europe, he observed that he was very often asked about NYC’s famous Singer Building of 1908 – the tallest building in the world, at the time. With an eye for marketing, he quickly realized that if he built the tallest skyscraper in the world and, if it bore his and his company’s name, these same people would be asking him about the “Woolworth Building.” Thus was born the idea to build both a corporate headquarters and a banner – in the form of a building - to advertise his growing chain of five and ten-cent stores. To do it right, he had to have an architect capable of not only creating the tallest commercial building in the world but, at the same time, the most beautiful and recognizable. He found all he wanted in Beaux-Arts architect extraordinaire Cass Gilbert.

Though it would be dubbed the “Cathedral of Commerce” on its opening day (April 24th 1913), Cass Gilbert had no intention of any ecclesiastical reference in the design of the skyscraper. It was FW’s admiration for the Gothic details of London’s Houses of Parliament and Gilbert’s recognition that, just as Gothic detailing accentuated the height of a medieval cathedral, so too could it accentuate the height of a skyscraper. Only the finest materials and best craftsmen and contractors were allowed to work on the building. The “soup soil” of lower Manhattan was a challenge met by the use of pneumatic caissons to create a solid foundation on bedrock found deep underground. The building’s ornate Lobby Arcade and Observation Gallery were instant tourist attractions, drawing people from near and far. “For the convenience of tenants,” the building featured the most modern mechanical, electrical, plumbing and elevator systems, as well as a sub-basement pool and European-style “Rathskellar.” Though it has long since lost the title of “World’s Tallest,” the Woolworth Building remains the embodiment of the pre-WWI “romantic” skyscraper and, since 1983, an official NYC landmark.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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