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Woolworth Building

Location: 233 Park Place at Barclay
Steet, New York, New York
Architect: Cass Gilbert
Date Completed: 1913
Height: 792 feet, 241 meters

The Woolworth Building was commissioned in 1910 by Frank W. Woolworth, the head of a multi-million dollar chain of five-and-ten-cent stores. This was to be the headquarters of his vast empire, and as such, Woolworth wanted to the building to reflect not only the company's success, but the success of twentieth-century commerce as well. This building had to be a true "cathedral of commerce."

The Woolworth Building artfully avoids the common subdivisions of base, shaft and capital. The main tower, at the front and center of the building, rises with only three minor setbacks, capped by a pyramidal roof. As a whole, the tower seems to rise in one soaring vertical mass. The minor setbacks only accentuate the sense of height.

Essentially, the Woolworth Building is a thirty-story tower set upon a thirty story base. Vertical bays of windows and gothic-style spandrels are set off from one another by vertical piers that are meant to express the structure of the building.

Gilbert's challenge here was to synthesize traditional aesthetics in the structure of a new office building. After all, how does one design a sixty story Greek Temple or Italian palazzo?  With the completion of the Woolworth Building, Gilbert established a successful aesthetic for New York skyscrapers.

At the base, the building is a practical U-shaped mass that maximizes the amount of light in offices. It spirals upward in a sheer Gothic fantasy of arches, spires, flying buttresses and gargoyles. The Woolworth Building is essentially a twentieth century building clad in fifteenth century gothic details. But it works.

After the building opened, Gilbert objected to the constant comparisons between the Woolworth Building and a gothic cathedral. Numerous gothic ornamentations are apparent of course, but as Gilbert argued, the design of the Woolworth Building was no different than that of most other skyscrapers -- the building's surface expressed its structure, the steel frame. Whatever ornamentation was "hung" on the surface had little or nothing to do with structure itself.

Gilbert covered most of the building in a skin of ornamental cream-colored terra cotta instead of masonry to stress that the walls themselves, despite appearances, were not load-bearing.
Cass Gilbert would be hard pressed to claim that the Woolworth Building's interior reflected anything BUT a gothic cathedral. Designed as a grand arcade, the public areas are certainly gothic in nature. Warm marble, sculpted relief, vaulted mosaic ceilings and painted decoration all contribute to an awe-inspiring environment truly worthy of the title "cathedral of commerce."

E.V. Lucas, a visiting Englishman, in 1920, compared the Woolworth to the Cathedral of St. John the Devine and was moved to write, "No matter how many more millions of dollars are expended upon that strange medley of ancient forms which go to make up New York's new cathedral, where Romanesque and Gothic seem already to be ready for their divorce, the Woolworth Building will be New York's true fame. Whoever designed that graceful immensity not only gave commerce its most notable monument to date, but removed forever the slur upon skyscrapers. The Woolworth Building does not scrape the sky; it greets it."

The Woolworth Building is indeed worthy of the title "cathedral of commerce." It is not only a monument to the Woolworth empire, but also to the guilded age of New York City commerce and architecture.

Another rare fact about the Woolworth Building -- it served as the company's headquarters  right up until Woolworth's 1997 declaration of bankruptcy.

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