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.