Woolworth Building
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Woolworth Building

Woolworth Building
Color photo of a skyscraper with trees in the foreground and a tall but significantly shorter building to the left
Woolworth Building in November 2005
Record height
Tallest in the world from 1913 to 1930[I]
Preceded byMetropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower
Surpassed by40 Wall Street
General information
Location233 Broadway
Manhattan, New York City
Topped-outJuly 1, 1912[1]
OpeningApril 24, 1913
CostUS$13.5 million (equivalent to US$342,341,379 in 2018)
OwnerWitkoff Group, Cammeby's International (bottom 30 floors)
Alchemy Properties (top 30 floors)
Roof792 feet (241 m)
Technical details
Floor count55
Design and construction
ArchitectCass Gilbert
DeveloperF. W. Woolworth
Structural engineerGunvald Aus and Kort Berle
Main contractorThompson-Starrett Co.
Renovating team
Renovating firmEhrenkrantz Group
Woolworth Building
Woolworth Building is located in New York City
Woolworth Building
Woolworth Building is located in New York
Woolworth Building
Woolworth Building is located in the United States
Woolworth Building
Coordinates40°42?44?N 74°00?29?W / 40.71222°N 74.00806°W / 40.71222; -74.00806Coordinates: 40°42?44?N 74°00?29?W / 40.71222°N 74.00806°W / 40.71222; -74.00806
Area0.5 acres (0.2 ha)
NRHP reference #66000554
Significant dates
Added to NRHPNovember 13, 1966
Designated NHLNovember 13, 1966
Designated NYCLApril 12, 1983

The Woolworth Building is an early American skyscraper located at 233 Broadway in Manhattan, New York City. Designed by architect Cass Gilbert, it was the tallest building in the world from 1913 to 1930, with a height of 792 feet (241 m). More than a century after its construction, it remains one of the 100 tallest buildings in the United States as well as one of the 30 tallest buildings in New York City.

Located in Manhattan's Tribeca neighborhood, the Woolworth Building is bounded by Broadway to its east, Park Place to its north, and Barclay Street to its south. The 60-story structure consists of a 30-story tower situated atop a 30-story base. Its facade is mostly decorated with terracotta (though the lower portions are limestone) and contains thousands of windows. The ornate lobby contains various sculptures, mosaics, and architectural touches. The structure was also designed with several amenities and attractions, including a now-closed observatory on the 57th floor and a private swimming pool in the basement.

The skyscraper was originally conceived by F. W. Woolworth, the founder of a brand of popular five-and-ten-cent stores, as a headquarters for his eponymous company. Woolworth planned the skyscraper jointly with the Irving National Exchange Bank, which also agreed to use the structure as its headquarters. The Woolworth Building had originally been planned as a 12- to 16-story commercial building, but underwent several revisions to its plans during its planning process. Its final height was not decided upon until January 1911. Construction started in 1910, and it was completed two years later. The building officially opened on April 24, 1913.

The Woolworth Building underwent several changes throughout its history. The facade was cleaned in 1932, and the building received an extensive renovation between 1977 and 1981. Though the Irving National Exchange Bank moved its headquarters to 1 Wall Street in 1931, the Woolworth Company (later Venator Group) continued to own the Woolworth Building for most of the 20th century. The structure was sold to the Witkoff Group in 1998. The top thirty floors, formerly used as office space, were sold to a developer in 2012 and subsequently converted into residences. The remainder of the building remains in use by office and commercial tenants. The Woolworth Building has been a National Historic Landmark since 1966,[6][7][8] and a New York City designated landmark since 1983.[9]


The Woolworth Building was designed in the neo-Gothic style by the architect Cass Gilbert. Originally designed to be 420 feet (130 m) high, the building was eventually elevated to 792 feet (241 m).[10] When completed in 1913, the Woolworth Building was 60 stories tall.[11] The tower only had 53 usable floors, and it was topped by several mechanical floors.[12]:16[13]

Given its resemblance to European Gothic cathedrals, the structure was called "The Cathedral of Commerce" by the Reverend S. Parkes Cadman in a booklet of the same title published in 1916.[11][14][1][15] It remained the tallest building in the world until the construction of 40 Wall Street and the Chrysler Building, also in New York City, in 1930.[16]


The building's crown

The building's tower, flush with the main frontage on Broadway, joins an office block base with a narrow interior court for light.[11][12]:12 The base's eastern boundary is on Broadway, and the building occupies the entire block between Park Place to the north and Barclay Street to the south.[17] The base contains two "wings" extending westward, one each on the Park Place and Barclay Street frontages, which form a rough U-shape when combined with the Broadway frontage. This ensured that all offices had views outside.[15] The U-shaped base is approximately 30 stories tall.[12]:13

The tower rises an additional 30 stories above the eastern side of the base, abutting Broadway. However, though the structure is physically 60 stories tall, the 53rd floor is the top floor that can be occupied.[13] Above the 53rd floor, the tower tapers into a pyramidal roof.[12]:13


On the part of the base facing Broadway, as well as the tower above it, there are three bays; the left and right bays have two windows per floor, while the center bay has three windows. The elevations facing Park Place and Barclay Street each have six bays with two windows per floor. The base, on its lowest four stories, is divided into three-story-high entrance and exit bays, each of which has a one-story attic above it.[12]:13 The main entrance on Broadway is a three-story Tudor arch surrounded on both sides by two bays: one narrower than the main arch, the other wider. The five bays form a triumphal arch overhung by a balcony and stone motifs of Gothic design. Inside the triumphal arch, there is a revolving door under a Tudor window, flanked by standard doors and framed with ornate decorations.[12]:14

Decorated revolving doors also exist at the northern and southern entrances, at Park Place and Barclay Street respectively.[18]:11 The Park Place and Barclay Street entrances are nearly identical to each other, except for the arrangement of the storefronts. Both entrances are located on the eastern sides of their respective elevations, lining up with the tower above them, and contain a wide arch flanked by two narrower arches.[12]:14 All three entrances feed into the lobby, or "arcade".[18]:11 The building's Park Place entrance contained a stair to the New York City Subway's Park Place station, served by the and ​ trains, inside the westernmost bay of the building entrance.[12]:14

The 27th floor contains terracotta ogee arches that project outward and act as a canopy. Above the 28th floor, the canopies are topped by a two-story-tall copper roof with complex tracery in the Gothic style. The 29th and 30th stories of the north and south wings are of similar depth to the six narrow bays on the Park Place and Barclay Street sides, but contain five bays. These wings are capped by a small tower with three bays.[12]:16


The 30th floor contains setbacks on the Park Place and Barclay Street sides, though not on the Broadway side. Additional setbacks are located on the 45th and 50th floors. The 30th through 45th floors measure 84 by 86 feet (26 by 26 m); the 46th through 50th floors, 69 by 71 feet (21 by 22 m); and the 51st through 53rd floors, 69 by 61 feet (21 by 19 m).[12]:16

The 30th through 45th floors contain three bays on each side; the side bays contain two windows while the center bay contains three windows. The 46th through 53rd floors also have three bays on each side, but the side bays only contain one window. At the 45th- and 50th-story setbacks, there are turrets at each corner of the tower.[12]:16

There is a pyramidal roof above the 53rd floor.[12]:13 The roof was originally gilt with gold, but is now green. It is interspersed with small dormers, which contain windows into the maintenance levels inside. The pyramidal roof is topped by another pyramid with an octagonal base and tall pointed-arch windows. The octagonal pyramid, in turn, is capped by a spire. The three layers of pyramids are about 62 feet (19 m), or five stories tall.[12]:16 An observation deck was located at the 55th floor, about 730 feet (220 m) above ground level.[12]:16 It was patronized by an estimated 300,000 visitors per year, but was closed as a security measure in 1941, after the Pearl Harbor attack.[19][20]


Except for the lowest four floors, the exterior of the Woolworth Building was cast in limestone-colored, glazed architectural terracotta panels.[11][12]:12 The lowest floors are clad in limestone.[12]:13 F. W. Woolworth initially wanted to clad the skyscraper in granite, while Gilbert wanted to use limestone. The decision to use terracotta for the facade was based on both aesthetic and functional concerns. Not only was terracotta fireproof, Gilbert believed that terracotta would be a purely ornamental addition, clarifying the Woolworth Building's steel construction.[12]:12[21]

The Atlantic Terra Cotta Company provided the original terracotta cladding.[22][23]:205 During construction, Gilbert requested that Atlantic Terra Cotta use an office adjacent to his own while it was drawing several hundred designs. He also asked that an outside firm, Donnelly and Ricci, create full-size designs based on Atlantic Terra Cotta's models.[23]:205 In 1932, Atlantic Terra Cotta carried out a comprehensive cleaning campaign of the Woolworth's facade to remove blackening caused by the soot and pollution of the city.[24] The building's facade was again restored between 1977 and 1981 by the Ehrenkrantz Group.[14] During the 1977-1981 renovation, much of the terracotta was replaced with concrete and Gothic ornament was removed.[9]

Some of the Woolworth Building's windows are set within arch-shaped openings. Most of the building's spandrels, or triangles between the top corners of the window and the top of the arch, have golden Gothic tracery against a bright blue backdrop. On the 25th, 39th, and 40th stories, the spandrels consist of iconography found in the royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom. Gold-on-blue tracery is also found on the 26th, 27th, and 42nd floors.[12]:16


Engineers Gunvald Aus and Kort Berle designed the steel frame, supported on massive caissons that penetrate to the bedrock. In order to give the structure a sturdy foundation, the builders used metal tubes 19 feet (5.8 m) in diameter filled with concrete. These tubes were driven into the ground with a pneumatic caisson process to anchor the foundations to the bedrock.[25]:PDF p. 5[26] The 69 caissons range in depth from 100 to 120 feet (30 to 37 m). Because the slope of the bedrock was so sharp, steps had to be carved into the rock before the caissons could be sunk into the ground.[27] Each column carries a load of 24 short tons per square foot (234 t/m2), supporting the building's overall weight of 233,000 short tons (208,000 long tons).[25]:PDF p. 5[26]

Strongly articulated piers, which carry right to the pyramidal cap without intermediate cornices, give the building its upward thrust. Portal braces on the building's exterior direct crosswinds downward toward the ground, rather than into the building. The copper roof is connected to the Woolworth Building's steel superstructure, which serves to electrically ground the roof.[25]:PDF p. 6 The Gothic detailing concentrated at the highly visible crown is over-scaled, and the building's silhouette could be made out from several miles away. Gilbert's choice of the Gothic style was described as "an expression of the verticality of the tower form", and as Gilbert himself later wrote, the style was "light, graceful, delicate and flame-like".[12]:10-11

When the Woolworth Building was being erected, Gilbert considered several proposals for exterior lighting to emphasize the structure's form and size. These included placing four powerful searchlights atop nearby buildings and a constantly rotating lamp at the apex of the Woolworth Building's roof. Ultimately, the builders decided to erect nitrogen lamps and reflectors above the 31st floor, and having the intensity of the lighting increase with height.[12]:13


Part of the lobby

At the time of construction, the Woolworth Building had over 2,000 offices.[26] Each office had ceilings ranging from 11 to 20 feet high.[15] The exterior contains several thousand windows: the exact number is disputed, but various sources state that the Woolworth Building has 2,843,[28][29] 4,400,[30] or 5,000 windows.[11][31] Because the structure was built before air conditioning became common, every office is located within 10 feet of a window.[32] Woolworth's private office on the 24th floor, revetted in marble in the French Empire style, is preserved in its original condition.[1]

The Woolworth Building was the first structure to have its own power plant with four Corliss steam engine generators totaling a capacity of 1,500 kilowatt-hours (5.4×1012 mJ); the plant could support 50,000 people.[17][33]:10[25]:PDF p. 6[34]:55 The building also had a dedicated heating plant with six boilers with a capacity of 2,500 horsepower (1,900 kW).[26][33]:10[32] The boilers were fed from subterranean coal bunkers capable of holding over 2,000 tons of anthracite coal.[33]:12 A dedicated water system was proposed during construction, but workers abandoned construction after unsuccessfully digging 1,500 feet (460 m) into Manhattan's bedrock.[32]


The ornate, cruciform lobby, known as the "arcade",[25]:PDF p. 2 has been described as being "cathedral-like"[17] and lauded as "one of the most spectacular of the early 20th century in New York City".[9] It consists of two 2-story-high passageways with barrel-vaulted ceilings. One passageway runs between the arcade's west wing at Woolworth Building's "staircase hall" and the east wing at Broadway. The other runs between the north wing at Park Place and the south wing at Barclay Street. A mezzanine crosses the arcade's north and south wings.[18]:11 Where the passageways intersect perpendicularly, there is a vaulted ceiling.[18]:11[14] The walls of this intersection vault are laid out in an octagonal shape, with mailboxes at the four "corners".[18]:11

Detail of grotesque

The lobby is covered in veined marble from the island of Skyros in Greece.[9][14][25]:PDF p. 2Edward F. Caldwell & Co. provided the interior lights for the lobby and hallways.[35] The ceilings are decorated with patterned glass mosaics that contains blue, green, and gold tiling with red accents,[25]:PDF p. 2[18]:11 There are other Gothic-style decorations in the lobby, including on the cornice and the bronze fittings.[18]:11 Several grotesques located are at points where the arcade's north and south wings intersect the mezzanine; they depict major figures involved in the Woolworth Building's construction. These ornaments include Gilbert with a model of the building, Aus taking a girder's measurements, and Woolworth holding nickels and dimes.[9][14][18]:11 Two ceiling murals by C. Paul Jennewein, titled Labor and Commerce, are located above the mezzanine where it crosses the south and north wings, respectively.[9][14][25]:PDF p. 2[18]:12[23]:234

The staircase hall is a two-story room located to the west of the arcade. It consists of the ground level, which contains former storefronts, as well as a mezzanine level above it. A 15-foot-wide (4.6 m) marble staircase leads westward from the arcade to a mezzanine, where the entrance to the Irving National Exchange Bank office was formerly located.[18]:12[36] The mezzanine contains a stained-glass skylight surrounded by the names of several nations.[18]:12 There is a smaller space west of the staircase hall with a one-story-high ceiling. This room contains a coffered ceiling with a blue-green background. The crossbeams contain Roman portrait heads, while the cornice contains generic sculpted grotesques.[18]:12 The lobby also contains a set of German chimes designed by Harry Yerkes.[34]:36


The basement of the Woolworth Building contains an unused bank vault, restaurant, and barbershop.[32] The bank vault was initially intended to be used as safe-deposit boxes,[36] though it was used by the Irving National Exchange Bank in practice.[23]:66 In 1931, Irving moved some $3 billion of deposits to a vault in its new headquarters at 1 Wall Street,[37] and the Woolworth Building's vault was converted into a storage area for maintenance workers.[38]

The basement also contains closed entrances to two New York City Subway stations.[36] There was an entrance to the Park Place station directly adjacent to the building's north side, served by the and ​ trains. This entrance was closed after the September 11 attacks.[32] Another entrance led to the City Hall station one block north, now served by the and ​ trains, but this was closed in 1982 due to concerns over crime.[39] The area in front of the former entrances is now used to store bikes.[36]

A private pool, originally intended for F. W. Woolworth, exists in the basement.[40] The pool was proposed as early as 1910.[41] The pool, measuring 15 by 55 feet (4.6 by 16.8 m), was later drained.[40][42] It was restored in the mid-2010s as part of the conversion of the Woolworth Building's upper floors into residential units.[43]


Detail of elevators

The Woolworth Building contains a system of high-speed elevators capable of traveling 700 feet (210 m) per minute.[33]:14 The Otis Elevator Company supplied the units, which were innovative in that there were "express" elevators, stopping only at certain floors, and "local" elevators, stopping at every floor between a certain range.[17][44]

The elevators are accessed from bays in the eastern and western walls of the arcade. The walls are both divided by two bays with round arches, and there are four elevators on each wall.[18]:11 The elevator doors in the lobby were designed by Tiffany Studios.[36] The patterns on the doors have been described as "arabesque tracery patterns in etched steel set off against a gold-plated background".[23]:234


The Lincoln American Tower in Memphis, Tennessee, built in 1924, is a one-third-scale replica of the Woolworth Building.[45]



Frank Woolworth, an entrepreneur who had become successful because of his "Five-and-Dimes" (5- and 10-cent stores), began planning a new headquarters for the F. W. Woolworth Company in 1910. Around the same time, Woolworth's friend Lewis Pierson was having difficulty getting shareholder approval for the merger of his Irving National Bank and the rival New York Exchange Bank. Woolworth offered to acquire shares in New York Exchange Bank and vote in favor of the merger if Pierson agreed to move the combined banks' headquarters to a new building he was planning as F. W. Woolworth Company's headquarters.[12]:3 Having received commitment from the banks, Woolworth acquired a corner site on Broadway and Park Place in Lower Manhattan, opposite City Hall.[9] The entrepreneur briefly considered purchasing a plot at West Broadway and Reade Street, a few blocks north of the Woolworth Building's current site, but decided against it due to the prestige that a Broadway address provided.[23]:64–65

Woolworth and Irving National Exchange Bank then set up the Broadway-Park Place Company to construct and finance the proposed structure. Initially, the bank was supposed to gradually purchase the company's stock until it owned the entire company, and thus, the Woolworth Building. Irving would be able to manage the 18 floors of rentable space on a 25-year lease.[23]:65 While negotiations to create the Broadway-Park Place Company were ongoing, Woolworth and his real estate agent Edward J. Hogan purchased several parcels from the Trenor Luther Park Estate and other owners.[23]:65[46] The entirety of the current building's footprint, a rectangular lot, had been acquired by April 15, 1910, at a total cost of $1.65 million.[23]:65[9][47]

The Woolworth Building under construction in February 1912

Woolworth commissioned Cass Gilbert to design the new building.[9] There are few print documents that indicate early correspondence between Woolworth and Gilbert, and news articles as late as March 1910 mentioned that no architect had been chosen.[23]:68 Gilbert later mentioned that he had received the commission for the Woolworth Building after getting a phone call from Woolworth one day.[23]:68 The architect had recently finished designing the nearby Broadway-Chambers Building and 90 West Street,[48] and Woolworth admired the architecture of the latter.[23]:66 Woolworth also wanted his new structure to be of similar design to the Palace of Westminster in London, which was designed in the Gothic style.[15]

Gilbert was originally retained to design a standard 12- to 16-story commercial building for Woolworth.[48] This plan initially suited Woolworth; he later said that he originally "had no desire to erect a monument that would cause posterity to remember me".[49] However, Woolworth then desired to surpass the nearby New York World Building, which sat on the other side of City Hall Park and stood 20 stories and 350 feet (110 m). A drawing by Thomas R. Johnson, dated April 22, 1910, shows a 30-story building rising from the site.[48] Due to the change in plans, the organization of the Broadway-Park Place Company was rearranged. Woolworth would now be the major partner, contributing $1 million of the planned $1.5 million cost. The Irving Bank would pay the remainder, and it would take up a 25-year lease for the ground floor, fourth floor, and basement.[23]:66

By September 1910, Gilbert had designed an even taller structure, with a 40-story tower on Park Place adjacent to a shorter 25-story annex, yielding a 550-foot (170 m)-tall building.[12]:3 The next month, Gilbert's latest design had evolved into a 45-story tower roughly the height of the nearby Singer Building.[48] After the latest design, Woolworth wrote to Gilbert in November 1910 and asked for the building's height to be increased to 620 feet (190 m), which was 8 feet (2.4 m) taller than Singer Building, Lower Manhattan's tallest building at the time. Woolworth was inspired by his travels in Europe, where he would constantly be asked about the Singer Building. He decided that housing his company in an even taller building would provide invaluable advertising for the F. W. Woolworth Company and make it renowned worldwide. This design, unveiled to the public the same month, was a 45-story tower rising 625 feet (191 m).[12]:3[47] Referring to the revised plans, Woolworth said, "I do not want a mere building. I want something that will be an ornament to the city."[47] He later said that he wanted visitors to be able to brag that they had visited the world's tallest building.[49]

Even after the revised height was unveiled, Woolworth still yearned to make the building even taller as it was now close to the 700-foot (210 m) height of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower, the tallest building in New York City and the world at the time. On December 20, 1910, Woolworth sent a team of surveyors to measure the building's height and come up with a precise measurement so he could make his skyscraper taller.[12]:4[48] He then ordered Gilbert to revise the building's design so as to reach 710 feet (220 m) or 712 feet (217 m), despite ongoing worries over whether the additional height would be worth the increased financial cost. In order to fit the larger base that a taller tower necessitated, Woolworth bought the remainder of the frontage on Broadway between Park Place and Barclay Street.[12]:4

On January 1, 1911, the New York Times reported that Woolworth was planning a 625 feet (191 m) building at a cost of $5 million.[50] By January 18, 1911, Woolworth and Hogan had acquired the final site for the project, totaling $4.5 million. In a New York Times article two days later, Woolworth said that his building would rise 750 feet (230 m) to its tip.[51][48] In order to fit the correct architectural proportions, Gilbert redesigned the building to its current 792-foot (241 m) height.[10] Renderings by illustrator Hughson Hawley, completed in April 1911, are the first official materials that reflect this final height.[48]

Gilbert had to reconcile both Woolworth's and Pierson's strict requirements for the design of the structure. The architect's notes describe late-night conversations that he had with both men. The current design of the lobby, with its arcade, reflected these conflicting pressures.[18]:8 Sometimes, Gilbert also faced practical conundrums, such as Woolworth's requirement that there be "many windows so divided that all of the offices should be well lighted", and so that tenants could erect partitions to fit their needs. Gilbert wrote that this "naturally prevented any broad wall space".[12]:4-5 Woolworth and Gilbert sometimes clashed during the design process, especially because of the constantly changing designs and the architect's fees.[23]:122 Gilbert nevertheless commended Woolworth's devotion to the details and beauty of the building's design, as well as the entrepreneur's enthusiasm for the project.[12]:4-5[23]:122


Before beginning construction, Woolworth hired New York photographer Irving Underhill to document the construction of the building. These photographs were distributed to Woolworth's stores nationwide to generate enthusiasm for the project.[1]

The Woolworth Building under construction in April 1912

In September 1910, wrecking crews demolished the five and six-story structures which previously occupied the site.[34]:16 Construction officially began on November 4, 1910 with excavation by The Foundation Company, using a contract negotiated personally by Frank Woolworth.[52] The start of construction instantly raised the site's value from $2.25 million to $3.2 million.[26] The contract of over $1 million was believed at the time to be the largest contract for foundation construction ever awarded in the world.[34]:17

It took months for Woolworth to decide upon the general construction company. George A. Fuller's Fuller Company was well experienced and had practically invented skyscraper construction, but Louis J. Horowitz's Thompson-Starrett Company was local to New York and despite being newer, Horowitz had worked for Fuller before so had a similar knowledge base.[53][54]:104 On April 20, 1911, Thompson-Starrett won the contract with a guaranteed construction price of $4,308,500 for the building's frame and structural elements.[55] The company was also paid $300,000 for their oversight and management work, despite Woolworth's attempts to get the company to do the job for free due to the prestige of the project.[52][54]:107

The construction process involved hundreds of workers, and daily wages ranged from $1.50 for laborers to $4.50 for skilled workers.[26] By August 1911, the building's foundations were complete ahead of the target date of September 15; construction of the skyscraper's steel frame began August 15.[56] The steel beams and girders used in the framework weighed so much that, in order to prevent the streets from caving in, a group of surveyors examined the streets on the route along which the beams would be transported.[25]:PDF p. 5[54]:110 Steel for the building was provided by the American Bridge Company from their foundries in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and took over 45 weeks to manufacture.[34]:20

The Woolworth Building topped out on July 1, 1912

The first above-ground steel had been erected by October 1911,[27] and installation of the building's terracotta began on February 1, 1912.[57][23]:202 The building rose at the rate of 1½ stories a week and the steelworkers set a speed record for assembling 1,153 tons of steel in six consecutive eight-hour days.[58] By February 18, 1912, work on the steel frame had reached the building's 18th floor.[59] By April 6, 1912, the steel frame had reached the top of the base at the 30th floor and work then commenced on constructing the tower of the Woolworth Building. Steel reached the 47th floor by May 30 and the official topping out ceremony took place two weeks ahead of schedule on July 1, 1912, as the last rivet was driven into the summit of the tower.[60][1][26][58] The skyscraper was substantially completed by the end of that year.[11]

The building opened on April 24, 1913. Woolworth held a grand dinner on the building's 27th floor for over 900 guests, and at exactly 7:30 p.m. EST, President Woodrow Wilson pushed a button in Washington, D.C., to officially turn on the building's lights.[61][11] Attendees included Francis Hopkinson Smith, who served as toastmaster; author William Winter; businessmen Patrick Francis Murphy and Charles M. Schwab; Rhode Island Governor Aram J. Pothier; Judge Thomas C. T. Crain; US Senator from Arkansas Joseph Taylor Robinson; Ecuadorian minister Gonzalo Córdova; New York Supreme Court Justices Charles L. Guy and Edward Everett McCall; Commissioner of Education of the State of New York John Huston Finley; Collector of the Port of New York William Loeb Jr.; naval architect Lewis Nixon; Rear Admiral Charles Dwight Sigsbee; Commissioner of Docks and Ferries of the City of New York R. A. C. Smith; Colonel William Conant Church; United States Representative from New York Herman A. Metz; New York City Police Commissioner Rhinelander Waldo; banker James Speyer; former Lieutenant Governor of New York Timothy L. Woodruff; writer Robert Sterling Yard; Admiral Albert Gleaves; and reportedly between 69 and 80 congressmen who arrived via a special train from Washington, DC.[61][62][63] Additional congratulations were sent via letter from former President William Howard Taft, Governor of New Jersey James Fairman Fielder, and United States Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.[63]

On completion, the Woolworth Building topped the record set by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower as the world's tallest building, a distinction it held until 1930.[20][25]:PDF p. 3 The final estimated construction cost was US$13.5 million[25]:PDF p. 3[1][61] up from initial estimates of US$5 million for the shorter versions of the skyscraper.[1] This was divided into $5 million for the land, $1 million for the foundation, and $7 million for the structure. Woolworth provided $5 million, while investors provided the remainder, and financing was completed by August 1911.[64] By May 1914, Woolworth had purchased all of the Broadway-Park Place Company's shares from the Irving National Exchange Bank. However, though Woolworth owned the building, his company did not.[1]

Opening and early years

Woolworth Building c.1913

The building was declared ready for occupancy on May 1, 1913 and Woolworth began advertising the offices for rent beginning at $4.00 per square foot.[65] In order to attract tenants, Woolworth hired architecture critic Montgomery Schuyler to write a 56-page brochure outlining the features of the building.[66] Before opening, the building was reportedly more than 50% leased.[67] By the end of 1914, the building was 70% occupied and generating over $1.3 million a year in rents for the F. W. Woolworth Company.[68] By the 1920s, the building had more than a thousand different tenants, who generally occupied suites of one or two rooms.[65] These tenants reportedly collectively employed over 12,000 people who worked within the building.[33]:7

In 1920, after F. W. Woolworth died, his heirs took out a $3 million mortgage loan on the Woolworth Building from Prudential Life Insurance Company to pay off $8 million in inheritance tax.[69][70] By this point, the building was worth $10 million and grossed $1.55 million per year in rent income.[71] The Broadway-Park Place Corporation sold the building to Woolco Realty Co., a subsidiary of the F. W. Woolworth Company, in April 1924 for $11 million.[72] The company paid $4 million in cash and obtained a five-year, $11 million mortgage from Prudential Life Insurance Company at an annual interest rate of 5.5%.[73]

During World War I, only one of the Woolworth Building's then-14 elevators was turned on, and many lighting fixtures in hallways and offices were turned off. This resulted in about a 70% energy reduction compared to peacetime requirements.[74] This policy was reinstated during World War II: ten of the building's 24 elevators were temporarily disabled in 1944 due to a shortage in coal.[75]

In 1927, the building's pinnacle was painted green and the observation tower was regilded in gold at a cost of over $25,000.[76] The Atlantic Terra Cotta Company cleaned the Woolworth Building's facade in 1932.[24] By 1953, a new chilled water air conditioning system had been installed, bringing individual room temperature control to a third of the building. Additionally, the old car-switch-control elevators had been replaced with a new automatic dispatching systems and new elevator cars.[77][15] However, the building's terracotta facade deteriorated easily, and by 1962, repairs to the terracotta tiles were occurring year-round.[78][15]

Restoration, landmark status, and sale

The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission considered giving the Woolworth Building official city-landmark status in 1970. The F. W. Woolworth Company called the landmark law as a whole "onerous" since it would restrict the company from making modifications to many aspects of the building.[79] The commission ultimately declined to give the Woolworth Building a designated-landmark status because of the F. W. Woolworth Company's opposition to such a measure, as well as the increased costs and scrutiny.[80] The F. W. Woolworth Company commissioned an appraisal of the building's facade in 1975 and found serious deterioration in the building's terracotta. Many of the blocks of terracotta had loosened or cracked from the constant thermal expansion and contraction caused by New York's climate.[28][29] The cracks in the facade let in rain, which in turn caused the steel superstructure to rust.[29]

In 1977, the F. W. Woolworth Company began a five-year restoration of the building's terracotta and limestone facade, as well as replacement of all of the building's windows.[30] Initially, the company had considered replacing the entire terracotta facade with concrete to prevent further deterioration, but backed away from the plan due to cost and potential backlash from preservationists. The renovation involved the replacement of roughly one-fifth of the building's terracotta surface. as well as all of the building's windows, by Turner Construction under a plan by the New York architectural firm Ehrenkrantz Group. Since terracotta had become rare in the 1970s, few manufacturers remained to supply replacement tiles, so the company replaced 26,000 of the tiles with concrete lookalikes; many of those tiles had to be custom-cut.[28][29] The concrete was coated with a surface that was meant to be replaced at five-year intervals, a similar replacement cycle to the glaze on the terracotta blocks.[78] Similarly, the original copper windows were replaced with aluminum frames which allowed them to be opened, whereas the originals were sealed in place. The company also removed some decorative flying buttresses near the tower's crown and refaced four tourelles in aluminum due to damage.[28][29]

The renovation was completed in 1982. When the work began it was expected to cost just $8 million, but the final cost was over $22 million. Much of the renovation was financed through an $11.4 million tax break from the New York City government.[81] The same year the renovation was completed, the building's entrance to the City Hall subway station was closed due to fears over crime.[39] A year later, in 1983, the Landmarks Preservation Commission revisited the building and granted landmark protection to its exterior and facade.[80]

The building was owned by the F. W. Woolworth Company (later Venator Group) until 1998. After struggling financially for years and with no need for a trophy office building, Venator Group began discussing a sale of the building in 1996.[82] On April 28, 1998, the Venator Group announced plans to sell the building, and in June 1998, sold it to Steve Witkoff's Witkoff Group and to Lehman Brothers for $155 million.[83][84] Along with the sale, the F. W. Woolworth Company shrunk its space in the building from eight floors to four; this was a sharp contrast to the 25 floors that the company had occupied at its peak. Witkoff also agreed to license the Woolworth name and invest $30 million in renovating the exterior and interior of the building.[42]

Witkoff Group

The Woolworth Building, right, in 1985; the former World Trade Center can be seen at left

After purchasing the building, the Witkoff Group rebranded the building to attempt to attract entertainment and technology companies. In April 2000, the Venator Group officially moved their headquarters out of the building to 112 West 34th Street.[85] In October 2000, the company proposed a 2-story addition to the 29th-floor setbacks on the north and south sides of the tower, to be designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who were also leading the renovation of the building. However, the proposal was unanimously voted down by the Landmarks Preservation Commission.[86]

The company unveiled an ambitious plan in November 2000 that would have converted the top 27 floors of the building into 75 condominiums, including a 5-story penthouse. The plan also would have included a new residential lobby on Park Place, a 100-space garage, a 75-seat underground screening room, and a spa in the basement. The developers planned to spend $60 to $70 million on the conversion and to be ready for occupancy by August 2002.[85] However, the Landmarks Preservation Commission opposed the plan because it would have required exterior changes to the roof.[86] A version of the plan was eventually approved by the commission. Following the September 11 attacks, and the subsequent collapse of the nearby World Trade Center, the status of the plan was in doubt, and the proposal was later canceled.[87]

Prior to the September 11 attacks, the World Trade Center was often photographed in such a way that the Woolworth Building could be seen between 1 and 2 World Trade Center.[88] After the attacks occurred only a few blocks away, the building was without electricity, water and telephone service for a few weeks and had broken windows and a damaged top turret due to falling rubble. Increased post-attack security restricted access to most of the ornate lobby, previously a tourist attraction.[89]New York Times reporter David W. Dunlap wrote in 2006 that a security guard had asked him to leave within twelve seconds of entering the Woolworth Building.[90] However, there was renewed interest in restoring public access to the Woolworth Building during planning for the building's centennial celebrations. The lobby reopened to public tours in 2014, when Woolworth Tours started accommodating groups for 30- to 90-minute tours. The tours were part of a partnership between Cass Gilbert's great-granddaughter, Helen Post Curry, and Witkoff's vice president for development, Roy A. Suskin.[91]

In June 2003, Credit Suisse First Boston provided $201 million in financing for the property spread across a $125.4 million senior loan, a $49.6 million junior interest and a $26 million mezzanine loan.[92] In April 2005, Bank of America provided a $250 million commercial mortgage-backed security interest-only loan on the office portion of the building. At the time, the building was 96% occupied, appraised at $320 million, and generated almost $18 million a year in net operating income.[93]

By 2007, the concrete blocks on the Woolworth Building's facade had deteriorated because of neglect. A lack of regular re-surfacing had led to water and dirt absorption, which in turn stained the concrete blocks. Though terracotta's popularity had increased since the 1970s, Suskin had declined to say whether the facade would be modified, if at all.[78] Around the same time, Witkoff planned to partner with Rubin Schron to create an "office club" on the top 25 floors building to attract high-end tenants like hedge funds and private equity firms. The plan would have restored the 58th floor observatory as a private amenity for "office club" tenants, in addition to amenities such as a private dining room, meeting rooms, and a new dedicated lobby. The partners planned to complete the project by the end of 2008, but the financial crisis of 2007-2008 derailed the plans, leaving the top floors gutted and vacant.[94]

Residential conversion

On July 31, 2012, an investment group led by New York developer Alchemy Properties which included Adam Neumann and Joel Schreiber, bought the top 30 floors of the skyscraper for $68 million from the Witkoff Group and Cammeby's International.[95][96] The firm planned to renovate the space into 33 luxury apartments and convert the penthouse into a five-level living space.[97] The lower 28 floors are still owned by the Witkoff Group and Cammeby's International, who planned to maintain them as office space. The project was expected to cost approximately $150 million including the $68 million purchase price.[98]

The renovation included many restorations and changes to the building's interior. Two of the elevator shafts only went to the 29th floor, allowing extra floor space for the residents above.[98] A new private lobby was also built for residents and the coffered ceiling from F.W. Woolworth's personal 40th floor office was relocated to the entryway.[43][99] The building's new interiors were designed by Thierry Despont and Eve Robinson with Miele appliances and custom cabinetry. Each unit also received space in a wine cellar, along with access to the restored private pool in the basement.[43] The 29th floor was converted to an amenity floor named the "Gilbert Lounge" after the structure's architect, while the 30th floor hosts a fitness facility.[98]

In August 2014, the New York Attorney General's office approved Alchemy's plan to sell 34 condos at the newly branded Woolworth Tower Residences for a combined total of $443.7 million.[100] The $110 million price tag for the building's penthouse unit is the highest asking price ever for an apartment in downtown Manhattan.[101] If sold, the unit would surpass the record $50.9 million penthouse at Ralph Thomas Walker's Walker Tower, and even the $100.5 million record price for a Manhattan penthouse set by Michael Dell at Extell's One57 in 2014.[102]

After a soft launch in the fall of 2014, units at the building were officially listed for sale in summer 2015.[103] Alchemy initially intended to leverage an in-house sales staff and hired a director from Corcoran Sunshine to lead the effort.[104] However, the new sales director left at the end of 2015 for Extell Development Company amid rumors of slow sales at the project.[105] Following his departure, the company hired Sotheby's International Realty to market the units.[106] In June 2016, United Overseas Bank of Singapore provided a $220 million construction loan for the project.[107]

In 2015, The Blackstone Group provided a $320 million loan on the office portion of the building to refinance the maturing Bank of America loan from 2005.[108]

When the sale was first announced in 2012, the developers expected the building's conversion to be complete by 2015.[95] However, construction of the conversion took longer than expected. Workers could not attach a construction hoist to the building's landmarked facade without damaging it, and they were prohibited from using the elevators due to both the active office tenants on the lower floors and the regular public tours of the landmarked lobby. As a result, the conversion was expected to be completed by February or March 2019, about six and a half years after Alchemy bought the property.[109] By February 2019, only 3 of the building's 31 condos had been sold since the developers refused to discount prices despite a glut of new luxury apartments in New York City.[110]


Early tenants

Seen from the east

At the building's completion, the F. W. Woolworth Company occupied only one and a half floors of the building.[9] However, as the owner, the Woolworth Company profited from renting space out to others. The Woolworth Building was almost always fully occupied due to its central location in Lower Manhattan, as well as its direct connections to two subway stations.[15] The Irving Trust Company occupied the first four floors upon the building's opening. It had a large banking room on the second floor accessible directly from a grand staircase in the lobby, vaults in the basement, offices on the third-floor mezzanine, and a board room on the fourth floor.[111] In 1931, the company relocated their general, out-of-town, and foreign offices from the Woolworth Building after building their own headquarters at 1 Wall Street.[112]Columbia Records was also one of the Woolworth Building's tenants at opening day, and housed a recording studio in the skyscraper.[113] In 1917, Columbia made what are considered the first jazz recordings, by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, in this studio.[114]

Shortly after the building opened, it was used by several railroad companies. The Union Pacific Railroad and Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad occupied the ground floor retail space to serve as ticket offices.[115] Other railroad companies that leased office space included the Alton Railroad, on the 13th floor; the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, on the 14th floor; the Canadian Pacific Railway, Great Northern Railway, and New York Central Railroad on the 15th floor; the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, on the 17th floor; the Chicago and North Western Transportation Company, on the 19th floor; the Canadian Northern Railway; the Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad; the Pennsylvania Railroad; the Atlanta, Birmingham and Atlantic Railway; the Kansas City Southern Railway; and the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad.[116][68][117][118]

The inventor Nikola Tesla also occupied an office in the Woolworth Building starting in 1914; after a year, he was evicted because he could not pay his rent.[32]Scientific American moved into the building in 1915 before departing for Midtown Manhattan in 1926.[119] The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America was present at the building's opening, occupying the southern half of the 18th floor after signing a lease in January 1913.[120] Other early tenants included the American Hardware Manufacturers Association headquarters, the American Association of Foreign Language Newspapers, Colt's Manufacturing Company, Remington Arms, Simmons-Boardman Publishing headquarters, the Taft-Peirce Manufacturing Company, and the Hudson Motor Car Company.[121][117]

Later 20th century

By the 1920s, the building also hosted Newport News Shipbuilding and Nestlé.[116][68]

In the 1930s, prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey maintained his offices in the building while investigating racketeering and organized crime in Manhattan. His office took up the entire fourteenth floor and was heavily guarded.[122][123] The regional headquarters of the National Labor Relations Board also moved into the building in 1937, shortly after its founding in 1935.[124] During World War II, the Kellex Corporation, part of the Manhattan Project to develop nuclear weapons, was based here.[125]

During the early 1960s, public relations expert Howard J. Rubenstein opened an office in the building.[126] In 1975, the city signed a lease for state judge Jacob D. Fuchsberg's offices in the Woolworth Building.[127]

Higher education

The structure has a long association with higher education, housing a number of Fordham University schools in the early 20th century. In 1916, Fordham created "Fordham Downtown" at the Woolworth Building by moving the School of Sociology and Social Service and the School of Law to the building.[128]:281 The Fordham University Graduate School was founded on the building's 28th floor in the same year and a new Teachers' College quickly followed on the seventh floor.[128]:259–282 In September 1920, the Business School was also established on the seventh floor, originally as the School of Accounting. By 1929, the school's combined programs at the Woolworth Building had over 3,000 enrolled students.[128]:291 Between 1916 and 1943 the building was also home at various times to the Fordham College (Manhattan Division), a summer school, and the short-lived School of Irish Studies.[128]:281[129][130] In 1943, the Graduate School relocated to Keating Hall at Fordham's Rose Hill campus in Fordham, Bronx, and the rest of the schools moved to nearby 302 Broadway because of reduced attendance due to World War II.[128]:262, 287

The New York University School of Professional Studies' Center for Global Affairs leased 94,000 square feet (8,700 m2) on the second, third, and fourth floors in 2002 from defunct dot-com startup FrontLine Capital Group.[131][132][133] The American Institute of Graphic Arts also moved its headquarters in the Woolworth Building.[134]

21st-century tenants

By the early 2000s, the Woolworth Building was home to numerous technology tenants. Digital advertising firm Xceed occupied 65,000 square feet (6,000 m2) across four floors as its headquarters, Organic, Inc. took 112,000 square feet (10,400 m2), and advertising agency Fallon Worldwide used two floors.[135][136] However, Xceed terminated its lease in April 2001 during the midst of the Dot-com bubble collapse in order to move to smaller offices in the Starrett-Lehigh Building.[137] One month after the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's Northeast Regional Office at 7 World Trade Center was destroyed in the September 11 attacks, the Commission's 334 employees moved into 140,000 square feet (13,000 m2) across five floors of the Woolworth Building.[138][139] The Commission left for a larger space in Brookfield Place less than four years later in 2005.[140] The General Services Administration took over the Commission's space and used it for federal court administrative and office staffing.[93]

The New York City Police Department pension fund signed a lease for 56,000 square feet (5,200 m2) on the 19th and 25th floors in April 2002.[141]Starbucks opened a 1,500-square-foot (140 m2) location on the ground floor in the spring of 2003.[142] In 2006, Levitz Furniture moved its headquarters to the 23rd floor of the building from Woodbury, Long Island after declaring bankruptcy a second time.[143] The design firm Control Group Inc. also leased a whole floor of the Woolworth Building in 2006.[144]

In May 2013, SHoP Architects moved the company's headquarters to the building's entire 11th floor, occupying 30,500 square feet (2,830 m2) of space.[145]Joseph Altuzarra's namesake fashion brand, Altuzarra, signed on to occupy the 14th floor in June 2016.[146] In November 2017, Thomas J. Watson's Watson Foundation signed a lease to relocate to the 27th floor of the building.[147] In May 2018, architecture and design firm CallisonRTKL signed a lease for the building's entire 16th floor.[148] The Vera Institute of Justice left the building's 12th floor a few months later, moving into a larger space in Industry City, Brooklyn.[149]

Cultural impact

The Woolworth Building has had a large impact in architectural spheres, and has been featured in many works of popular culture, including photographs, films, and literature.[150]:149–150 During construction, Irving Underhill, Wurts Brothers, and Tebbs-Hymans all took photographs to document the structure's progression. These photos were often taken from close-up views, or from far away to provide contrast against the surrounding structures.[1] They were part of a media promotion for the Woolworth Building.[23]:162 The photos were criticized by both contemporary and modern figures as "'standard solutions' at best and 'architectural eye candy' at worst".[150]:151 However, it was largely effective: in a 2001 book about Cass Gilbert, Mary N. Woods writes that "the rich and varied afterlife of the Woolworth Building ... enhances [Gilbert's] accomplishment."[150]:155

One of the earliest films to feature the skyscraper was the 1921 film Manhatta (1921), a short documentary film directed by painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand.[150]:161 Since then, the building has made cameo appearances in several films:[150]:162 for instance, the 1929 film Applause.[151] It was also the setting of several film climaxes, such as in Enchanted (2007),[152] as well as used for the setting of major organizations, such as in Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them (2016).[153][154] The Woolworth Building was also featured in at least one television show, the 2006 series Ugly Betty.[155][152]

The Woolworth Building has also appeared in works of literature. In Langston Hughes's 1926 poem "Negro", the narrator had made mortar for the building.[156] Additionally, in the novel Peak (2007), the protagonist is arrested for climbing the building.[157]

See also



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