101 years ago, president Woodrow Wilson and five-and-dime store mogul Frank Woolworth opened the Woolworth Building, architect Cass Gilbert’s gothic masterpiece. Today it still towers, like an upended cathedral, over New York’s Civic Center, and the monumental edifice has lost none of its magnificence over the years.
Gilbert’s design for the structure was unusual even in its time. Though the beaux-arts style’s influence can be seen in the general composition of the design, with a clearly defined base, column, and capital, neoclassical elements- which were very popular at the time in skyscraper design- were abandoned in favor of lavish neo-gothic ornamentation. Gilbert was supposedly inspired by the neo-Gothic movement in Europe, particularly such buildings as London’s parliament (Westminster Palace). The most ornate parts of the exterior are the entrances at street level, with portals that would not look out of place at Notre Dame in Paris, and the very top, where turrets flank a seven-story copper spire. However, just as striking are the stark vertical columns of windows drawing the eye up to the spire. This architectural device would become extremely prominent in the international style over fifty years later. The gothic theme continues inside, where the cavernous atrium is built to mimic a cathedral, complete with a cross-shaped plan and “gargoyles” representing Woolworth and Gilbert.
The building’s archaic styling hides the fact that, when it was constructed, the Woolworth building was perhaps the most technologically advanced structure of its time. Upon its completion, it was the tallest building in the world (792 feet with 57 stories) and would remain so for seventeen years. The complex steel frame stood on concrete piles that reached down to bedrock a hundred feet below the surface. The building was powered by a massive generator that could have supported an entire city of fifty thousand people. There were thirty high speed elevators, running on the alternating current system that had only recently been pioneered by Nikola Tesla.
The building drew public attention from the beginning of construction thanks to its eye-catching design and record height. The structure proved to be a highly successful investment for Woolworth, who rented out the vast majority of its million square feet of office space to over a thousand tenants. The structure became known as the “Cathedral of Commerce”, and it has been a National Historic Landmark since 2000. Today, although not the tallest building in southern Manhattan- the nearby Freedom Tower is nearly twice the height- the Woolworth Building stands out as one of New York’s most unique skyscrapers.
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