A blog about architectural tiles, terra cotta and other ceramic surfaces, architectural glass and ornamentation in and around New York.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Woolworth Building

H A P P Y   N E W   Y E A R!

The Woolworth Building

“No single unit of man’s audacity and skill, the leviathan ship, the Nile dam, the Simplon tunnel, is more triumphantly self-complete and self-justified than that beautiful Woolworth Tower, with its flying buttresses, its gilt-touched roof, its spire of crocketed gold, its white uplift by day, and its sky beacon by night. It captures your imagination when you see it from afar, it draws you again and again while you remain. It is your abiding memory of New York.” (Twells Brex, “Beauty of the American Skyscraper”, The Architect and Engineer of California, Vol. XXXVII, No. 3, July 1914, p. 47; John Twells Brex (1873-1920) was an English author and journalist active during the early twentieth century.

John Marin (1870-1953). Woolworth Building, No. 28, 1912-1913. Watercolor over graphite, 18 1/2” x 15 5/8”. National Gallery of Art, Gift of Eugene and Agnes Meyer, 1967. (http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MUSEUM/Armory/galleryK/marin.139.html)

The Woolworth Building, completed in 1913, was a building on the cusp of the old and the new in architecture, and it brought forth rapturous words, as well as artistic endeavors.

Three renderings of the Woolworth Building: the two on the left are early artist drawings from ca. 1900-1910, prior to it being built; the right illustration is an etching and aquatint by E. Hortis, ca. 1915. (From the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.)

In a 1917 article it was described thusly: “The Woolworth Building is a symbol. Its lighting, by fogged reflectors in frosted glass, snow-white in color, diffusing a soft light comforting the eye, is of tomorrow, the decorations in the banking room are of the past; its air-washers, delivering air sucked of its moisture to the proper percent, cooling in summer, heating in winter, are of tomorrow--the mosaic decorations on the hall ceilings are of the past; its mail-chutes and directories, beautified, bronzed, and harmonized with the building, acutely modern, are of tomorrow--the flower traceries on the outside, an admirable scale-study, academically proportioned to distance, are of the past: the Woolworth Tower looms up, at right angles to antiquity. We are apt to forget that thirty years ago such a structure was not possible; the mere, unavoidable details necessary to make it habitable, details of lighting, of heating, of transportation..., of plumbing, of sewerage, explain how far, and with what a rush, the builders have gone; I do not say they have gone forward; I say they have struck into an epoch totally strange, away from something we have known since history began, perhaps toward the expression of this coming epoch, toward the embodiment of all these novel elements into one more unit which shall be added to our conception of architectural beauty.” (J.B., “The Woolworth Building”, The Soil, Vol. 1, No. 2, January 1917, p. 65; 

Cass Gilbert, 1907. (Photo in the public domain)
Cass Gilbert (1859-1934) was the architect of the Woolworth Building. Gilbert was born in Zanesville, Ohio, but moved to St. Paul, Minnesota with his family when he was nine years old. Although he never finished formal, academic training to become an architect, he joined the firm of McKim, Mead and White in New York City in 1880, serving as assistant to Stanford White. Gilbert moved back to St. Paul in 1882 and represented the interests of McKim, Mead and White in the West. From 1885 through 1891 he formed an architectural partnership with a childhood friend, James Knox Taylor. “[Their] office built residences, churches, office buildings, railroad stations and commercial buildings in Minnesota, Wisconsin, the Dakotas and Montana.” In 1895 Gilbert was chosen to design the state capitol building in St. Paul, Minnesota, a project that brought him into national prominence. 

The Minnesota State Capitol Building. ("MinnesotaCapitol" by Jonathunder - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MinnesotaCapitol.JPG#mediaviewer/File:MinnesotaCapitol.JPG)

In 1899 he moved to New York City when he obtained the commission to build the new U.S. Custom House.

The Alexander Hamilton Customs House, Manhattan. ("AH Custom house dusk jeh" by Jim.henderson - Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:AH_Custom_house_dusk_jeh.JPG#mediaviewer/File:AH_Custom_house_dusk_jeh.JPG)

“Gilbert would go on to build many buildings in New York including the West Street Building, the New York Life Insurance Company Building, the New York County Lawyers Association Building, the Brooklyn Army Terminal, and the U.S. Courthouse. In 1913, Gilbert completed the Woolworth Building in New York City. It would stand as the world’s tallest building for over a decade. His career continued all over America. He worked on the capitol in Arkansas, and he designed the West Virginia Capitol. His last building was the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C.” (Cindy Stephani, compiler, “Cass Gilbert History | Cass Gilbert Family History”; http://www.cassgilbertsociety.org/architect/bio.html(The Cass Gilbert Society has listed the selected works of Cass Gilbert on their website.)

A 1912 Atlantic Terra Cotta Company ad showing the Woolworth Building under construction. (The Architectural Record, Vol. XXXI, No. 6, June 1912, p. 53)

“The Woolworth Building is Cass Gilbert's best-known tall building and one of the most famous skyscrapers in the United States.

The Woolworth Building under construction in 1912, and a picture post card from 1913 (Both in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York).

“When it was completed in 1913, it was the tallest building in the world and a potent symbol of the F. W. Woolworth Company. The 60-story tower with its terra-cotta cladding and neo-Gothic ornament helped to transform the skyline of New York. ...Early in the project, [Frank W.] Woolworth was interested in building an office building that would surpass neighboring buildings in height. He was then struck with the idea of surpassing the 612-foot height of the Singer Building, designed by Ernest Flagg and completed in 1907, and the 700-foot height of the Metropolitan Life Insurance tower, designed by Pierre LeBrun of Napoleon LeBrun and Sons and completed in 1909. He instructed Gilbert to prepare plans for an even higher tower, ultimately 792 feet.

“The overall appearance of the Woolworth Building is that of a uniformly white surface. Although Cass Gilbert introduced blue, green, tan, and yellow glazes into many architectural details, his intention was to heighten the surface articulation rather than to create a colorful facade.” (Susan Tunick, Terra-Cotta Skyline, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, New York, 1997, p. 69. Color photos courtesy of Michael Padwee unless otherwise noted.)

“Both Gilbert and Woolworth wanted a beautiful building. At the same time, Gilbert had to make the world’s tallest building practical and economic as an office building. The structural steel frame was clad in architectural terra cotta from the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company. Most of the terra cotta was light cream in color with polychromatic ornament that accentuated the Gothic detail. Gilbert worked with structural engineer Gunvald Aus on the foundations, which required sinking 69 pneumatic caissons to bedrock 100 to 120 feet below grade.” (“Woolworth Building”; http://www.cassgilbertsociety.org/works/nyc-woolworth-bldg/)

Front doors--233 Broadway.

Arched windows over front doors.

Gothic Revival decoration above the front doors.

“Gilbert believed that public buildings should serve the public and deserved whatever expenditure necessary to make them beautiful. He also recognized that the decorative arts were beginning to flourish in America...and believed that they should be encouraged; in accordance with these beliefs, his own public buildings were lavishly decorated.” (Landmarks Preservation Commission, April 12, 1983; Designation List 164, LP-1121, p. 5; http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/Woolworth-Building.pdf)

Some of the Gothic terra cotta decoration under and above the tiers of windows.

Cass Gilbert used a “varied palette of color to ‘accent both the highlights and shadows’ in the Woolworth’s Flamboyant Gothic ornamentation.” (Highest of the Hand-Made Buildings, The Friends of Terra Cotta Press, 2012, p. 14)

These views were also applied to commercial buildings like the Woolworth Building. “Gilbert...believed...that his approach to skyscraper design was based on structural expression and the aesthetic treatment of materials. He argued that since commercial buildings required thin surfaces, these therefore had to be treated decoratively, and that a thin, decoratively treated facade expressed the structural fact that the skyscraper was a steel-cage structure, clearly not supported by its terra cotta or stone cladding. One of the prime devices he used in this decorative treatment was color. [Gilbert explained this in a discussion of the Woolworth Building:] ‘There are three elements which are commonly counted upon for architectural expression--length, breadth and thickness. In a business building we may have length and breadth, but our wall surfaces cannot have thickness. In short, we cannot waste space...without sacrificing the rentable area, and we cannot project beyond the property line, therefore we have to deal with a perfectly flat surface without ‘relief’ which would give light and shade. We have also to provide windows at frequent and regular intervals... . It is these conditions that make the skyscraper problem so difficult of solution. I have endeavored to meet them by the use of detail in the treatment of wall surface and by the careful adjustment of polychromatic decoration.’” (Landmarks Preservation Commission, April 12, 1983; Designation List 164, LP-1121, p. 7; http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/Woolworth-Building.pdf)

“For Gilbert, terra cotta offered new possibilities for surface textures, for colors, for ‘authentic’ craftsmanship, and for rivaling the colorful stone facings and veneers he admired in the Florentine and Venetian architecture of the Middle Ages. Even more important, terra cotta had the capacity to compensate architecturally for what Gilbert continued to view as the structural steel frame’s problematically thin and repetitive construction.” (Highest of the Hand-Made Buildings, The Friends of Terra Cotta Press, 2012, p. 12)

Two views of the Gothic decorations on the Woolw orth Building: the twenty-seventh story canopy (Brickbuilder, Vol. XXI, No. 6, June 1912, p. 170),  and the roof (Photo by the Wurts Brothers; in the collection of the Museum of the City of New York).

”Detail of window at the twenty-sixth story of the court. The inter-window panels are modeled in golden yellow against backgrounds of four colors; the shields over the window are in true gold.” (“A 52 Story Facade of Architectural Terra Cotta”, The Western Architect, Vol. 18, No. 8, August 1912, p. 90)

Five views of the Woolworth Building exterior, 2014.

“The Woolworth interior continues the Gothic motif of the exterior. This motif had apparently been chosen for its suitability for [the] expression of verticality [that] Gilbert believed proper for skyscrapers, and because Frank Woolworth had long admired the Gothic design of the Houses of Parliament in London.” (Landmarks Preservation Commission, April 12, 1983; Designation List 164, LP-1121, p. 9; http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/Woolworth-Building.pdf)

The Ground Floor Interior

A 1913 interior view from the Broadway entrance to the grand staircase and Irving Bank entrance. (Architecture, Vol. XXVII, No. 6, June 1913, Plate LVIII) The cross-arcade passages are just beyond the elevator banks.

In January 2013 I was given a treat for Christmas--a special tour of the Woolworth Building’s ground floor, mezzanine and first basement with my sister’s photography club. At that time I did not know that the ground floor was an innovation in 1913. The main, public interior spaces of the Woolworth building had to satisfy certain considerations: the size of the building; Frank Woolworth wanted a retail arcade; 

The Grand Staircase. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Padwee)

the Irving Bank wanted a central staircase to their offices in the mezzanine; and Cass Gilbert wanted a beautiful, programmatic decorative design combining architecture, painting and sculpture. “The lobby, which went through many proposals, eventually combined the requirements of [Frank W. Woolworth and Lewis Pierson of the Irving Bank] by joining an arcade at the east forming Woolworth’s grand lobby with a large hall at the west [...containing a] grand central staircase serving as the formal entrance to the Irving Bank offices at the mezzanine level. ...Gilbert indicated that the [retail] arcade would be ‘about 20’ high and about 15’ wide[...with] a cross corridor from Park Place to Barclay Street near the rear.” (Landmarks Preservation Commission, April 12, 1983; Designation List 164, LP-1121, p. 9; http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/Woolworth-Building.pdf)

One half of the cross corridor from Park Place to Barclay Street.

After the building opened Rev. S. Parken Cadman called it “The Cathedral of Commerce”. Although Gilbert said this building only had secular sources, the interior does resemble the interior of a church: “The arcade bears a great likeness to a barrel-vaulted nave with a transept, intersected by a shallow dome at the crossing; the mosaic ceilings, sculpted grotesques, and painted triptychs only add to the similarity.” (Landmarks Preservation Commission, April 12, 1983; Designation List 164, LP-1121, p. 9; http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/Woolworth-Building.pdf)

The glass mosaic lobby dome.

Detail view of the dome's center. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Padwee)

“[The] lobby...is one of the most lavish spaces in New York. [...It] is richly decorated with heavily veined marble from Greece and marble floors from Vermont. Designers, artists, and sculptors were hired to make the building lobby absolutely extraordinary. [The] lobby said something about Woolworth and Woolworth's partner in the construction, the Irving National Bank. These were major corporations and they wanted a presence in the lobby, so that you knew when you arrived here that you had arrived someplace important. ...The way in which the lobby is designed is very carefully thought out. There is a small intermediate outer lobby, and then you go through a series of revolving doors and you burst into this brightly colored, very tall space.

Barrel-vaulted lobby ceiling decorated with mosaics. (Photo courtesy of Lynn Padwee)

The glass mosaic ceiling from the Broadway entrance to the rear lobby where Irving Bank once had its entrance.

“Heineicke and Bowen, a very prominent decorating firm in the early twentieth century, was hired to do most of the work inside, and they prepared barrel-vaulted mosaics filled with flowers and birds and other ornament that were modeled after the early Christian mosaics in Ravenna, Italy.

(Photo courtesy of Lynn Padwee)

(Photo courtesy of Lynn Padwee)

“They were responsible for the stained-glass dome over the marble staircase that led to the Irving Bank. And it was they who put together the marble, the bronze, the plaster, the mosaics, and the stained glass—all of the different materials used to create this very special interior.” (http://nycarchitecture.columbia.edu/0242_2/0242_2_s5_7_text.html)

The stained glass “dome” and the view toward Broadway from the marble stairs. (Photos courtesy of Lynn Padwee)

The ground floor also had bronze-decorated elevators designed by Tiffany, as well as bronze-framed signs and mail chutes.

Mail chute, Building Directory and Elevator.

The programmatic material of the Woolworth Building “included a glorification of Commerce and Finance, reflecting both the Woolworth Company and the Irving Bank; in addition, it included references to the individuals involved in the creation of the Woolworth Building, itself. The painted triptychs in the galleries portray allegorical figures of Commerce and Labor; they were the work of Paul Jennewein, who also designed the entry to the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library on Grand Army Plaza. The glass ceiling in the marble hall is inscribed with the names of great commercial nations. 

Corbel “grotesques” of Cass Gilbert, Frank Woolworth, Gunwald Aus, Louis Horowitz, Lewis Pierson and Frank Hogan in the grand lobby. (Photographer: Dr. Philip Larson)

“The ‘grotesque’ figures supporting the arcade galleries, by Tom Johnson, a popular caricaturist of the day, portray not only Woolworth, Pierson and Gilbert, but also Gunwald Aus, the steel engineer, Louis Horowitz, the builder, and even Edward Hogan, the renting agent. ...The completed interior is stunning in its decorative effect and succeeds in both its functions: it complements the extraordinary Gothic exterior of the building, serving as symbolic welcome to Woolworth’s tower, and by drawing visitors down the arcade toward the central staircase it marks the grand entrance to the Irving Bank.” (Landmarks Preservation Commission, April 12, 1983; Designation List 164, LP-1121, pp. 10-11; http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/Woolworth-Building.pdf)

Into the Irving National Bank from the grand staircase. (Cass Gilbert, “The Woolworth Building”, Architecture and Building, Vol. XLV, No. 7, July 1913, p. 292)

West of the grand staircase (behind it) is “...a smaller hall with marble walls and storefronts on the north and south... . Unlike the major lobby spaces, this area is only one story high. Its coffered ceiling is gilded, with a blue-green background, but no mosaics. There are Roman portrait heads in the cross-beams, and sculpted grotesques ringing the hall at the cornice line... .” (Landmarks Preservation Commission, April 12, 1983; Designation List 164, LP-1121, p. 12; http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/Woolworth-Building.pdf)

The rear lobby’s coffered ceiling.

The grotesques in the back lobby are said to not represent specific people. (Photos courtesy of Lynn Padwee)

The Mezzanine level consists of one section above the Broadway entrance and two sections with balconies overlooking the lobby at the junction of the two main corridors in the lobby. Each balcony contains a mural.

A painted triptych mural on the South mezzanine balcony representing “Commerce”. The triptych on the North balcony represents “Labor”.

Behind the triptychs are groin-vaulted areas painted blue with stars and Gothic grotesques around the doors and elevators.


In 2014 the Woolworth Building entered a new phase of its existence after 101 years. According to The New York Times the Woolworth tower will be turned into luxury condominiums: “Thirty-four residences, spanning half and full floors, will begin on the 29th floor and range from a 1,290-square-foot one-bedroom for $3.875 million to the 9,403-square-foot seven-level penthouse in the pinnacle. Called ‘the Castle in the Sky,’ the penthouse will have a two-story living room with a fireplace, an elevator and an outdoor observatory; the price is $110 million. Two- and three-bedrooms, which will make up the bulk of the offerings, are to begin at $7.25 million and $9.575 million respectively. Two ‘pavilion residences’ on the 29th floor will be distinguished by huge private terraces and will set buyers back more than $20 million each.” (Michelle Higgins, “Luxury Condos in the Woolworth Building”, The New York Times, September 26, 2014; http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/28/realestate/luxury-condos-in-the-woolworth-building.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3As%2C%7B%221%22%3A%22RI%3A11%22%7D&_r=0#)  It would be a stretch for me, but the 29th floor might just be within my reach!

Frank Woolworth’s private office, c. 1915-1930. (Collection of the Museum of the City of New York)

In addition, Frank Woolworth’s private office on the 40th floor will become part of a condominium. The ornate ceiling coffers were removed and preserved and will be reinstalled in the new “residents’ lobby” in a new Park Place entrance.

One of the restored ceiling coffers (Photo by Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times); a rendering of the residents’ lobby by Williams New York.


I would like to thank the Raritan Photographic Society and Art Goldenberg and Rich Doerr for organizing the tour of the Woolworth Building, and, of course, Lynn Padwee for permission to use her photos.