The Woolworth Building
Cathedral of Commerce
The Woolworth Building
233 Broadway, New York City
The Woolworth Building, completed in 1913, stands at a height of
792 feet, 1 inch. Conceived by Frank W. Woolworth, designed by Cass Gilbert and engineered
by Gunvald Aus, it was designed and built to be the tallest building in the world.
Early in 1910, F.W. Woolworth decided to erect a building on the
southwest corner of Broadway and Park Place. However, it was not the original concept that
the building be of such relatively enormous proportions as the Woolworth Building was to
become. In November, 1910, the building was projected to be 45 stories, or 625 feet, plus
a tower of 86 square feet. Its projected cost was $5 million.
F.W. Woolworth would acquire the surrounding lots in the following
months, and the building was to become the length of the entire block front. After the
caissons were sunk, Woolworth decided that the current plans for the height of the
building (already at 750 feet, making it the would-be tallest building) were too meager,
and incresed the planned height. Additional caissons were sunk and provisions were made
for the change in the height.
The final cost of the building would be $13.5 million, and
while it would have 58 stories, its stories are so large (11-20 ft.) that the building is
actually considered to be 79 or 80 conventional stories.
The express elevator bank and the lobby/arcade
The architect, Cass Gilbert, designed The Woolworth
Building with a definite Gothic style. The building's heavy steel frame is well hidden by
its Gothic-style and heavily detailed terra cotta shell. The lobby/arcade has a cruciform
floor plan, vaulted ceilings and Gothic-style ornamentation. The lobby ceiling is laid
with colored glass in Byzantine/Early Christian mosaic style. The marble and bronze around
the mailboxes, elevators and doors are in gothic design. The lobby halls include a set of
humorous gargoyles depicting the key people in the building's construction. There are murals on either end of the lobby's north-south hallway at the
mezzanine level, depicting Labor and Commerce, respectively. The building has arched
entryways, also ornamented beautifully. These features and the Gothic tower and exterior
design truly make the Woolworth Building worthy of the title Cathedral of Commerce,
given by Rev. S. Parkes Cadman at the building's opening. Gilbert resents the label,
however claiming that the models used in his design were purely secular structures, and
that the Woolworth Building was meant in no way to be religious.
(from L-R) Gunvald Aus (engineer), Lewis Pierson (president of Irving
Bank), Edward J. Hogan (rental agent)
The Woolworth Building is truly an engineering marvel as well. The
building boasted the highest office space to elevator space ratio for any building at the
time of its completion, making it very profitable. It also had a new system for elevator
safety which contained air cushions on the bottom of the shafts. The elevators traveled as
fast as 700 geet per minute. The maintenance and mechanical equipment was housed in a
unique manner, in order to gain the most possible useable space. The height of the
building alone required state-of-the-art engineering. The caissons had to be sunk to
enormous depths in order to reach bedrock, needed for the stability of such an enormous
The culmination of the building's design and construction occured on
April 24, 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson pressed a button in the White House,
illuminating both the interior and exterior of the Woolworth Building. The building was
built to be a great structure as a testament to both the Woolworth Corporation and urban
American architecture. F.W. Woolworth intended his building to be dominating and graceful,
the best advertisement possible for his company. The Woolworth Building is truly a
masterpiece, in all respects.
The Woolworth Building also has a connection with Fordham University. Before the
Lincoln Center Campus was built, the University conducted School of Education and Graduate
Arts and Sciences courses in space within the Building.
Landau, Sarah Bradford and Carl W. Condit, Rise of the New York
Skyscraper, 1865-1913, (New Haven: Yale University, 1996), 381-391.
Lehman, Arnold, The New York Skyscraper: A History of Its
Development, 1870-1939, (Ann Arbor, MN: Xerox University Microfilms, 1974), 128-142.
Nichols, John P., Skyline Queen and the Merchant Prince,
(New York City: Trident, 1973), 82-88.
Designed and authored by John Butkowski, student at
Fordham University, New York City.
All photographs by John Butkowski.
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