Behind The Scenes

Woolworth’s May Be Gone, But We Still Have The Woolworth Building

Steven Tucker, Woolworth Building, undated. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel

Steven Tucker, Woolworth Building, undated. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel

On February 22, 1878, F. W. Woolworth opened the first Woolworth store in Utica, New York. That store failed, but he reopened in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and began one of the most successful chain businesses in America. As a kid, I remember our local Woolworth’s as a one-stop shop, with everything from halloween costumes to alarm clocks to the boxes of Whitman’s chocolate my dad liked to keep around the house.

In 1910, F.W. Woolworth commissioned Architect Cass Gilbert to design an office building for the company’s new corporate headquarters. It was initially supposed to be 20-stories, but by the time it opened in 1913 it was 60-stories/792 feet high—the tallest building in the world until 1930. The Woolworth Company only had offices on a couple of floors, but rented the rest to other tenants. You can see Gilbert’s original materials relating to the building in our Library collections.

Cass Gilbert designed the building in a neo-Gothic style, and it was nicknamed the “Cathedral of Commerce” based on its resemblance to European Gothic cathedrals. (You can see more about that name here.) The inside is also known as one of the most spectacular lobbies in the city, with mosaics, gilded elevators, and a depiction of Cass Gilbert holding the building itself. There’s even a secret pool!

In 1997, the Woolworth’s chain shut down after facing increasing competition from other companies. But the Woolworth Building is still one of New York’s greatest architectural achievements.

1 Comment to Woolworth’s May Be Gone, But We Still Have The Woolworth Building

  1. March 2, 2014 at 12:41 am | Permalink

    I had the privilege of going through the Gilbert papers at the N-YHS back in 1983 when writing the Landmarks Preservation Commission’s designation reports on the Woolworth Building. The papers had only recently been acquired, and not yet been catalogued. The librarians brought me boxes of unsorted materials – it was fascinating to look through it all. The resulting reports are available on-line (click on this link for the exterior report: http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/83-WOOLWORTH-EXT.pdf — and on this link for the lobby report: http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/Woolworth-Building.pdf). Just one correction to the above blog entry: Gilbert was quite firm that he did not model the exterior of the building on European cathedrals – he used secular models, including the Victoria tower at London’s Houses of Parliament. The lobby of the Woolworth Building – closed to the public after 9/11 – is now open for tours (click on this link for information: http://anthonywrobins.com/landmarks/woolworth-building-lobby-opens-again-for-tours/)

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