The Woolworth Building, an innovative and elegant early skyscraper completed in 1913, endures today as an iconic form on the New York City skyline. A historicist exterior sheaths a modern steel tower, embodying both the era’s modern spirit of progress and its hesitation to fully break from the past. Cass Gilbert, selected as the architect, believed the designer should “weave into the pattern of our own civilization the beauty that is our inheritance.” An ornate monument to the growing economic dominance of New York City, the building was dubbed the “Cathedral of Commerce.”
Commissioned by retail magnate Frank W. Woolworth, who controlled almost six hundred “five and dime” stores, the project sited at 233 Broadway was to become a new corporate headquarters, a generator of rental income, and an elegant billboard to bolster his company’s reputation. Woolworth financed the building independently without loans or assistance from developers, an atypical condition for a building of that size.
Architect Cass Gilbert had established a national reputation for designing regal civil buildings, predominantly in the Beaux Arts style. Born in Minnesota, Gilbert returned to St. Paul to start his own practice after a number of years studying at MIT, traveling through Europe and working for McKim, Meade and White. He relocated his firm to New York City in 1900. Gilbert believed that public buildings should serve the public, and whatever expense required to make them beautiful should be allocated.
While initially envisioned as the tallest structure in its neighborhood at 45 stories at 625 feet tall, the final design grew to 60 stories at 792 feet tall, making it the tallest building in the world at the time of its completion. Located on Broadway in lower Manhattan bordering City Hall Park, the Woolworth building occupies the entire block between Park Place and Barclay Street.
Gilbert worked with structural engineer Gunvald Aus on the innovative foundation and steel frame. Sixty-nine pneumatic caissons ranging from 6.5 and 18.75 inches in diameter were driven down to bedrock 100 to 120 feet below grade to support the towering mass. Closely spaced steel beams, called a grillage, were installed atop each caisson to transfer building loads. Because construction on the caissons began before Woolworth acquired additional property and enlarged the design, additional caissons and enormous transfer girders spanning between the original 38 concrete piers were required.
Wind loads drove the steel frame design. Steel arches (portal braces) rigidly connect many columns on middle floors. The base of the tower is reinforced by concentric chevron bracing and the upper corners by “K” shaped knee braces.
The lobby and basement levels fill the entire site footprint, with setbacks along the building’s height permitting light to reach street. The twenty-four stories stacked above the lobby occupy a “U” shaped floor plan with a central elevator core. This shift in the massing allows for a skylight atop the lobby level grand stair hall and lets ample daylight reach office spaces. Hipped roofs top the longer bars of this volume and only a slender tower rises above. Adding almost thirty additional stories to the building, this svelte volume steps back and is finally capped by a pyramidal roof.
The final building was an engineering and construction feat of its time: 792 feet tall, 60 floors, 206 million pounds, 15 acres of floor area, 3000 exterior windows, 24,000 tons of steel, 17 million bricks and 7,500 tons of terra cotta.  A number of innovations are hidden within the ornate Neo-gothic envelope: a higher ratio of office to elevator space than any earlier skyscraper, a new elevator safety system with air cushions at the bottom of each shaft, and components erected at an unprecedented rapid pace.
With the design for both the interior and exterior, Gilbert brought the grandeur and authority of a civic building to a corporate tower. Ornate exterior cladding of cream terra cotta with blue and yellow glazed accents evokes guildhall architecture of France and England. Slim vertical piers accentuate the verticality of the building. A green patina-ed copper roof replete with gargoyles and tracery tops the building.
The symmetrical cruciform lobby welcomes visitors with spectacular decor. It is adorned with Early Christian inspired barrel vault mosaics, a stained glass skylight, marble walls, bronze furnishings, and plaster grotesques, including ones of Woolworth counting coins and Gilbert holding a model of the building.
The Woolworth Building was largely met with admiration and awe, because as a pamphlet on the building asserted “brute material has been robbed of its density and flung into the sky to challenge its loveliness.”  Contemporaries saw it as more than a means to produce profit or an expression of corporate power; its form became a precedent for the 1916 zoning law regulating building envelopes and prototype for a group of skyscrapers built in the 1930s. The critical reception was positive: The New York World called it the “American architectural masterpiece of the twentieth century” and the New York Times compared it to the world’s greatest architectural wonders. 
Renovations in the 1970s by Ehrenkrantz & Associates replaced much of the ornate exterior cladding with cast stone panels and simplified some of the ornate detailing. The building has outlived the Woolworth Company, which went out of business in 1997. In 2012 a development group purchased the top 30 floors with the intention to turn them into luxury condos, as well as make minor upgrades to the building. Proposed renovations include window replacements and new window openings, adding a canopy at the residential entrance, and restoring a long abandoned swimming pool in the basement.
For more information on the Woolworth building, check out the online exhibition and lecture videos from The Skyscraper Museum or read a detailed description in a 1983 Landmark Preservation Commission document. An in depth discussion of the building and culture of the time can be found in the print book: The Skyscraper and the City: The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York.
1 “Response on the occasion of the presentation of The Gold Medal for Architecture of the Society of Arts and Sciences to Cass Gilbert, New York, January 16, 1931” in Cass Gilbert: Reminiscences and Addresses
2 Sewell Chan, “A New History for an Old Skyscraper,” New York Times, July 25, 2008, accessed January 21, 2014.
3 S. Parkes Cadman, Forward to The Cathedral of Commerce by Edwin A. Cochran, (New York: Broadway Park Place CO, 1916)
4 Michael Tavel Clarke, These Days of Large Things: The Culture of Size in America, 1865-1930. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), 166
Architects: Cass Gilbert
- Year: 1913