The Five and Dime Skyscraper

If you ask any tourist what their favorite New York skyscraper is, most will answer either the Empire State Building (Shreve, Lamb & Harmon 1931) or the Chrysler Building (William Van Alen 1930). It is no wonder as these are undoubtedly two of the most iconic and recognized buildings in the world. My favorite, however, is the Woolworth Building. At 792’, it held the title of tallest building in the world for 17 years until 40 Wall Street, then known as the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building, surpassed it in 1930. 40 Wall Street was soon passed by the Chrysler Building, which in turn was bettered by the Empire State Building in 1931…but that’s another story.

My favorite, however, is the Woolworth Building.

The Woolworth Building is unique and has a colorful history of its own.

Frank W. Woolworth, owner of the F.W. Woolworth variety stores, or as they were commonly known, five and dime stores, commissioned the building in 1910 from noted architect Cass Gilbert. Woolworth identified a site near City Hall and the Brooklyn Bridge. Originally intending to build a 16-20 story building, Woolworth saw many commercial properties around him that were taller, such as the Singer Building (Ernest Flagg 1909). He understood the commercial potential of the location as a billboard for his business and decided to build the tallest building in the world. Woolworth would only occupy 1-1/2 floors of the building, leasing out the rest and thus producing income and return on his investment. At the time Cass Gilbert was practicing in Minnesota and rising in prominence having completed major projects for the Minnesota State Capital and the Endicott Building in St. Paul. In 1898 he moved his practice to New York where he completed Broadway-Chambers Building (1900), the West Street Building (1907), and the Alexander Hamilton Custom House (1902-07) at Bowling Green (now the National Museum of the American Indian). Gilbert was elected president of the American Institute of Architects in 1907. He would later go on to design such notable projects as the New York Life Insurance Building, the US Supreme Court Building, and the George Washington Bridge with Engineer Othmar Ammann.  

Cass Gilbert, Architect

Woolworth building under construction

F.W. Woolworth was said to have financed the $13.5 million price tag for the building in cash (worth about $328 million today) after purchasing shares from the Irving National Bank, the cosponsor and anchor tenant. The building was designed in a Neo-Gothic style which reflected Woolworth’s vision of himself being descended from the medieval merchant class of Europe. The building not only represented the manifestation of Woolworth’s success, but it also ushered in the era of mass commerce.

The building was notable for many reasons:

  • It was the last major skyscraper undertaken before WWI.
  • The building’s steel frame was built at an amazing rate of 1-1/2 stories a week, a pace that presaged the building of the Empire State Building and future skyscrapers.
  • It is one of the first buildings to pioneer the use of steel cross-bracing to protect against high wind loads.
  • The foundation is not built on piles but on caissons similar to those used for Brooklyn Bridge’s towers.
  • The building’s high speed elevators were the fastest in the world at that time.

Cass Gilbert believed in the value of studying the architecture of the past not to copy it, but to adapt it.

His approach to skyscraper design was based on structural expression and the  aesthetic treatment of materials. The polychromatic architectural terra cotta cladding used at the Woolworth building was a frank expression of the material use as a skin, not heavy masonry structure. The tower on base massing promoted the basic principles of a vertically emphasized design that future skyscrapers would emulate.

The gothic motif is carried into the ornate cathedral like grand arcade of the lobby richly appointed with marble, bronze gothic filigree, and vaulted ceilings covered in floral mosaic tile. Gargoyle- like caricatures depicting Woolworth counting his nickels and dimes, and Gilbert holding a model of the building, accompany other clever flourishes. The design of the lobby is intended to glorify commerce and finance, reflecting the roles of the Woolworth Company and the Irving National Bank while complimenting the exterior architecture.

At the opening ceremony Woodrow Wilson threw a switch in the White House that illuminated 80,000 light bulbs including exterior lighting, which is one of the earliest examples of exterior illumination highlighting building architectural elements. At the dedication, the Rev. S. Parkes Cadman christened the building as the “cathedral of commerce”, a moniker which is still used to this day.

The building is still one of the top 30 tallest buildings in the city and remained under the ownership of the Woolworth Corporation for 85 years. It was sold in 1998 to the Witkoff Group for $155 Million. The top 30 floors were subsequently sold for development as residential units. The lower floors will remain as commercial office space. 

Marc Gordon, Partner