When the Woolworth Building was completed in 1913, it achieved instant renown as the highest skyscraper in the world. Cass Gilbert’s design was hailed by critics for the picturesqueness of its Gothic silhouette in skyline views. Its commanding central tower with soaring, syncopated verticals echoed the dynamism of the modern city. The tower’s upper stages, evocative of European cathedrals, bristled with a scenographic array of gables, tourelles, crockets, and finials. At the building’s base, a Tudor Gothic portal opened on axis to a monumental lobby recalling a Romanesque cathedral nave. Vaults surfaced with Byzantine mosaics, cornices of gilded tracery, and the lunette murals, “Labor” and “Commerce,” framed a gracious marble stair leading to the Irving National Exchange Bank.
The interior’s first class office space, spacious in height and well-lit throughout, was complemented by a shopping arcade, health club with swimming pool, and a medieval German Rathskeller, all of which offered the finest amenities for tenants. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, the tower’s pinnacle observatory served as one of the city’s leading tourist attractions. Visitors from around the world enjoyed a thrilling panorama of lower Manhattan and the coastal geography beyond.
Frank W. Woolworth, the chief executive of the F. W. Woolworth Company and owner of 318 five- and ten-cent stores across the United States, in Canada, and England, commissioned Gilbert to design the Woolworth Building as the company’s headquarters on a site at Broadway and Park Place in April 1910. Gilbert had recently completed his United States Custom House, Broadway Chambers Building, and West Street Building, all in lower Manhattan. Woolworth, known as one of the largest importers of European commodities in the United States, frequently visited the Custom House, but he also admired the skyscraper Gothic design of Gilbert’s West Street Building, which fronted the Hudson River just a few blocks away.
Gilbert aimed to create for the F. W. Woolworth Company the identity of a majestic civic or public building—inspired by the medieval city halls and belfries he had studied and admired on his recent travels in Belgium—albeit with motifs and details culled from French and English cathedrals. But Woolworth already viewed his skyscraper as a “giant signboard” that would eclipse in height the recently completed Singer Tower to advertise his chain of stores around the world. To that end, Woolworth promoted the skyscraper with a celebratory opening on April 24, 1913, staged as a great lighting spectacle, along with a strategic program of printed news media publicity and the world’s first scheme of floodlighting, which he hailed as a “standing advertisement.” He subsequently deployed an image of the skyscraper as a trademark, to build consumer loyalty and to sharpen the Woolworth brand identity.
The Woolworth Building’s construction epitomized the day’s enthusiasm for technology. The tower’s steel frame, built to the unprecedented height of 792 feet, utilized the day’s most extensive system of portal arch wind bracing. Caissons were carried down to some of the deepest bedrock in the city, and the exterior featured one of the day’s most extensive systems of terra cotta cladding. For the most discerning of tenants, such state-of-the-art technologies, which also included high-speed elevator service, along with self-sustaining electrical power generation, heating, cooling, water supply, and fire protection, contributed to the safe and secure ambiance of a “city within a city.”
In 1916, the Reverend S. Parkes Cadman christened the Woolworth Building the “Cathedral of Commerce” as part of an effort to promote it as an ethical white-collar workplace. During the vibrant economy of the 1920s, Gilbert’s skyscraper Gothic design was viewed at home and abroad as a symbol of American material success. Down to this day, it evokes the expansive mood of the early 20th century, when New York served as the nation’s most prosperous port and gateway for the commerce of the world.
The Woolworth Building was named a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and in 1983, a New York City Landmark.