The Woolworth Building

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.

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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.

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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.

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To the right is the tall skyscraper being built next to it.

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Woolworth Building and the giant skyscraper.

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.

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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.

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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.

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The trains use to run into the building. I can’t remember the name of the old line.

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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.

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The old bank vault.

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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.

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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.

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21 thoughts on “The Woolworth Building

  1. Great post, beautiful photos ~ we had an old Woolworths in my hometown that I barely remember…it was where I would buy packs of baseball cards (and chew the horrible gum that came with it). I remember it had a little cafe that looked like something from the 50’s (soda fountain style) and it was a sad day when it closed down. Nice trip down memory lane this morning ~ cheers!

  2. I’m going to be in NYC in two weeks, so I’ll have to add the Woolworth Building on my to-do list. I love visiting the city: there’s always something new to discover, something new to do, though I’ll have to keep my 18-month-old grandson in consideration when we go out. (Zoos and parks are great, museums where he can’t run amok and touch everything, not so much.) But seeing places like the Woolworth make me wish I’d win the lottery so I could move into one of those fab condos, if only so I could see that ornate lobby every day. 🙂

    1. Maybe the Brooklyn Botanical or NY Botanical Gardens? I guess people don’t come to NY to see our gardens. At the Brooklyn one they have a cute kids area but 18 months may be a bit young. Def, cool if older and can run around. I’ll see what I can find that’s family friendly for a youngster.

      1. Thanks, I’d love to hear any suggestions about kid-friendly places in NY! I also have to keep in mind that my daughter and her family live in Queens and are dependent on public transportation. While the train makes most things accessible, I keep forgetting that what might take 20 minutes to get to in a car often takes twice as much time when you take the subway, changing lines and then transferring onto a bus. I want to visit the Cloisters sometime, but it’d be an all-day trip, mainly because it’d take over an hour to get there. I also saw your post about the Untermyer Gardens and wanted to go there, but again, long trip, especially with a kid in tow. (My grandson has also discovered the power of tantrums, and is a fierce screamer. My daughter now lives in dread that he’ll explode during a trip to the supermarket or the pediatrician’s. He’s a sweet little boy but is entering toddlerhood fast. 😦 )

      2. With a young kid – plan on driving to Untermeyer. The way we went took us through the back and you have to climb a steep hill. The front entrance you drive to it.

        We don’t explore Queens or Bronx often. We don’t drive and it takes us a really long time to get there. We live at the way bottom of Brooklyn, Bay Ridge.

        http://www.noguchi.org/
        in Queens. Never been here but curious.

        http://www.movingimage.us/
        Saw the Chuck Jones exhibit here. That was fun. They have different exhibits now.

        http://nysci.org/
        Haven’t been here but I know my nephews love it. They are 5 and 7. Science museum in Queens.

        http://mommypoppins.com/nyc-play-fountains-water-features-kids-sprinklers
        Didn’t realize this was a thing. Nice for a hot summer day and there’s one near the Natural History Museum.

        http://newyork.cbslocal.com/top-lists/6-great-museums-for-children-in-nyc/
        http://www.tripadvisor.com/Attraction_Review-g60763-d110275-Reviews-Children_s_Museum_of_Manhattan-New_York_City_New_York.html

        http://mommypoppins.com/new-york-city-family-neighborhood-guide/queens
        maybe this site will have some ideas

        Hope that helps. Have fun! He’ll grow out of the tantrums. At least our streets are always pretty busy and kind of noisy so many it’ll drown out the tantrums. One nephew still has really bad tantrums. When he’s with his cousins, the older cousin once said ,’Conner’s always crying and upset…’ That was pretty funny.

      3. LOL! Yeah, one humid, dreary day my grandson whined and screamed, even while eating dinner. Finally. my tired son-in-law lost it and yelled, “Baby, you are just being an a**hole!” I don’t blame SIL at all: after spending most of the day trying to entertain him, I was feeling pretty burned out on the grandma stuff myself.

        These are wonderful suggestions. The Noguchi Museum has been on my “must-see” list, along with the Museum of the Moving Image. We were also thinking of taking the grandson to the Museum of Natural History to see how he reacts to the dinosaurs and stuffed animals. (Not the cute FAO Schwarz ones, the taxidermied, posed ones in the dioramas. 😉 ) That terraced fountain might be just the thing when he gets fed up with being indoors.

        I know Grandson has been to the Children’s Museum with the other grandparents and loved it, so much so he screamed bloody murder when it was time to leave. 😮 My daughter has also suggested we hire a sitter for a day and go see some grown-up museums and gardens as well. I think she might need the break! Thanks again! 🙂

      4. Sounds like a great trip! Been dying to see Noguchi but we get lazy going to Queens. One day. We both took off work to go to the Museum of Moving Image. We ate at an Italian restaurant in Astoria. I don’t remember which. Just walked in – really enjoyed our food. Then we went to Parisi for pastries.

        On a family trip to Aruba. Conner was 3. He was hanging out with me at the dinner table. We were seated outside, waiters walking around with hot food. Conner wanted to run around because he was bored. I said no, it’s not good to run here, you can get hurt, etc. He fell to the floor kicking and screaming. I don’t think I did anything wrong. Friends I told the story to don’t think I did anything wrong. But the whole family including my husband said I should have let him run around. There were waiters serving hot food – I thought it could end really bad with a little guy running amok. I think they wanted to avoid the tantrum. When I was would have been yelled at. They all said I made him upset. I was trying to prevent an accident.

        Funny story you told me. It happens. It’s hard to be patient all the time. Some things wear you out a bit. I had tantrums too. Pretty bad ones but I told my husband not as bad as Conner’s. I tell my parents if you think I was difficult you should meet Conner.

      5. No no no! You did the right thing, keeping Conner from running around the restaurant! I think too many parents let their kids pwn them just because they don’t want the kids screaming and making a scene. I work at a school and see this ‘way too often: the moment you tell one of these kids they can’t make their own schedule or interrupt the class with their chatter, they scream, sulk, and throw stuff. Then they’re shocked when the teacher doesn’t put up with that, and they end up sitting out recess or missing out on treats. Also, how to make your kid unpopular—the other kids know that student’s behavior is wrong, and after awhile, he can’t get anyone to play with him or choose him for a game of basketball.

        So Conner was super lucky you stopped him from running in a potentially dangerous area! And I’m sure the restaurant staff were thankful you stopped him too! 🙂

      6. Thanks. That makes me feel better. They like to keep the kids quiet. I don’t agree with that. Manners are nice to learn. I do expect kids to be kids. They just need a to be taught some things once in a while. Have fun in NY. Right now it’s not too hot.

    1. Thanks! I couldn’t believe my eyes when I walked in! I don’t know what happened to the pics of the outside of the building. The doorways. When I was going through them I realized they were gone. At least it’s the outside and I can easily take pics of that again.

    1. It’s made of glass something. I forgot what’s its called. I didn’t know there was a tour that took us closer to see the ceiling. We’ll do that one day. Get pics up close!

  3. Those were the days when you walked into the store wearing a suit and hat (or hat, dress and gloves) into buildings “dressed to the nines.” Looking at the pictures it gave me the feeling of those times, remembering my trips with my mother to Burdines in Miami. Wish there were something in between that type of formalism and the fluorescent lighted warehouse-style Wally worlds where huge people do their shopping in bathing suit tops and short shorts.

    1. I never knew Woolworth had a food counter until the tour. The one I use to go to was a discount store with a lot of different things in it. Our guide was very well informed. She said that there’s a pool in the basement which will be fixed up for the condos. In the 70s they had some wild parties in it. I can’t seem to find that info. She said that pool had a rep in the 70s.

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