On April 24, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson turned the lights on in the Woolworth building with the push of a button while he was in Washington DC. They thought electricity was a fad so the building is wired for electric and gas power.
The Woolworth building is one of Cass Gilbert’s most well known buildings. It was interesting seeing this building and it’s ornateness compared it to Gilbert’s other creation we saw a few months ago, Brooklyn Army Terminal. The Army Terminal is utilitarian and functional in style, but if you look long enough you can see Gilbert’s touch on the complex. The creation he made for Woolworth is really a masterpiece.
Standing at 55 stories (according to Gilbert) or 60 stories (according to Woolworth, which includes the sub basements), it was once the world’s tallest building measuring 792 feet, or 241.4 meters. For the first two years, gold leaf use to cover the top but blew off and was never replaced. This solid beauty is made of terracotta and limestone. It cost Woolworth $13.5 million in cash to build.
It’s a shame a tall skyscraper was allowed to be built right in back of the building. It detracts and ruins one of NY’s iconic buildings. Let’s hope the city government understands that we need to preserve our skyline because if developers are allowed to building giant buildings next to all of our iconic buildings, our skyline will be ruined and unrecognizable. Our historic marks will be lost in a sea of cold, boring, bland modern pieces with no character. Imagine the Empire State Building covered from all sides by giant modern glass buildings. At least the one by Woolworth is made of stone and has a somewhat warmer feel. Our tour guide told us that a lot of her European tourists can’t believe how a giant/taller tower is allowed to be built a couple of buildings over from something as well known and old as the Woolworth. Totally agree.
Who is this man Woolworth? Frank Winfield Woolworth was the owner of five and dime stores. How we shop today was pioneered by him. He would buy directly from the manufacturers and sell the items at a fixed price instead of haggling with the customer. He was also the first to use fixed displays so the customer could touch the product without having to use a salesperson. He was born in Rodman, New York, not far from Lake Ontario. In 1873 he worked for a store called Augsbury & Moore’s Drygoods as a stock boy. He was not a good salesman so he was given jobs like washing the windows. They found that he was very creative at arranging the store’s front display. Frank impressed his boss so after his first display, that became his specialty. This is where he learned his own niche of selling. Back in the day, few items were priced and the salesperson had to fetch them. It was these experiences which gave him the idea that the goods should be able to sell themselves. There are differing stories of how he came up with the idea of the five and dime stores.
The original chain went out of business on July 17, 1997 when the firm changed it’s name to Venator but in 2001 adopted the name Foot Locker, Inc, their sporting goods brand. The company went under other transformations in foreign countries but I’m focusing on the US.
When we were little my parents would take my sister and I to shop at the Woolworth’s near the seaport. Then we’d go to Burger King after. We’d buy our school supplies or whatever miscellaneous stuff we needed. They kind of had a little bit of everything and had a food counter. The one I went to didn’t have a food counter. It was a sad day when it closed because of all our memories and it was a really old company.
The Woolworth building is used for office space but part of it will be used for condo residences. The top 30 floors will be converted for luxury living. You can look into what they are doing here.
If you are into history and architecture, it’s worth going on a tour. Oddly enough it wasn’t easy for me to find tours of the building. Tourists are not allowed in unless they book a guided tour.