The Woolworth Building in New York City was once the tallest building in the world. It was commissioned by the five-and-dime store entrepreneur Frank W. Woolworth, who funded its $13.5 million construction in cash, which translates to approximately $350 million in 2018 dollars. Soaring above City Hall Park on a full-block site on Broadway, it now stands as a monument to American capitalism and the limitless nature of New York’s real estate market.
The Woolworth Building has a flamboyant past. When it originally opened in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson pressed a button in the White House and 80,000 light bulbs lit up the entire facade, supervised by inventor Thomas Edison.
Edison was one of the many luminaries in attendance at the building’s prestigious opening night. Dubbed ‘the highest dinner ever held in New York’ by the press, a lavish banquet ensued in honor of the building’s architect, Cass Gilbert.
Governors, congressmen, judges and other high-powered businessmen were all in attendance. “It was a celebration of the filthy rich, possibly one of the most indulgent dinners of the Gilded Age,” according to one report.
The opening ceremony was as remarkable as the building itself. Because the construction was funded solely by Woolworth, with no loans or help from developers, he had complete freedom of design.
Gilbert and Woolworth decided on a Beaux-Arts design with Gothic details. The interior features a yellow marble cathedral-like lobby with sculptures, mosaics, and a gold-decked ceiling. Caricatures of Woolworth counting his dimes and Gilbert cradling a model of the building in his arms feature in this lobby area.
The building housed several groundbreaking features for the time including exterior lighting, water supply system and high-speed electric elevators. It was home to a shopping arcade, barber shop, restaurant, health club, and social club.
Woolworth’s private office was also modeled and furnished to resemble Napoleon’s Compiègne palace.
The construction became an instant landmark and soon became known as “the cathedral of commerce”. Standing at more than 793 feet, it reportedly attracted 100,000 visitors every year who flocked to the tower’s 58th story observation deck.
The Woolworth Building won widespread acclaim for its pioneering steel-frame structure at a time when skyscrapers were only just starting to take over the city’s skyline. This was a time when architects were trying to reach a consensus about what a skyscraper should look like. Unlike the nearby Flatiron Building, the Woolworth Building’s slender design later became a blueprint for the world’s skyscrapers.
The Woolworth Building Now
More than 100 years later, the Woolworth Building’s original glory remains. But the building has largely remained closed to the general public in recent times.
The Woolworth Building was sold to the Witkoff Group for $155 million in 1998, marking the first time the building changed ownership since its inception.
However, in 2013 and thanks to the efforts of Cass Gilbert’s great-granddaughter, Helen Post-Curry, private tours were organized for the building’s centenary. Thanks to the popularity of these tours, regular historic and paid tours are now available of the building’s lobby.
Unfortunately, the building’s observation deck on the 58th floor closed during World War II, reportedly out of fear that enemy spies could exploit its harbor views.
In 2017, the first of the 33 brand-new luxury condos were put up for sale following an extensive conversion on the building’s 29th to 58th floors. The Woolworth Tower Residences are the work of famed French architect Thierry W. Despont.
The full-floor condos were reportedly offered at $26.4 million. However, Curbed NY reported a listing price of $110 million for the extraordinary five-story Pinnacle Penthouse.
A range of office and retail leasing opportunities are available in the Woolworth building. Its tenants include ShoP Architects, the Rainforest Alliance, Starbucks, and the New York City Police Pension Fund.
Standing at 60-stories high, the Woolworth Building is still a New York landmark. American architectural critic Paul Goldberger describes it as “the Mozart of skyscrapers.”