For the ten years that I have lived in this city, I have never much appreciated the architecture given my preference to the European rather the American design sensibilities. Yet, even so, I cannot claim to be completely ignorant of the gems that dot the city that is my home, even if, they were built in reminiscence of cities that the immigrants originated from. Amidst all this, and, especially, since I started watching How I Met Your Mother, oh a few years ago, the name Woolworth has been rather bandied about in my hearing in the context of bucket list to-dos, changing my mind about American architecture and all that.
I have passed the building several times, since it is by the rather thoroughfare area of City Hall and Downtown Manhattan. I have glanced up at yet another tall structure that it is and simply walked past, not registering anything in particular, or even, that it was the infamous building. Truth be told, if you did not know of it, you would not notice it in particular. When made this comment to a friend who is partial to the skyline of the city, I drew his ire and a long lecture, most of which I tuned out of, except for the bit that the real gem about the building and that which makes a near fairy tale is hidden from public view.
Although the building carries a rich history and several records in of itself, the piece de resistance is its bejeweled lobby! Aha! Here is the nub though. Since, the building changed ownership some time ago, the lobby was no longer open to the public, making the building prime suspect for cult worship. Nothing builds a story like lack of access...and nostalgia.
Two years ago, the current board magnamously decided to start hosting guided tours for the public. So, no, you cannot walk in as you please, but, it definitely is more fun and informative to do it as a tour. Naturally, when I got the opportunity to peek into this fabled bit of New York history, I leaped at it!
And, it is absolutely worth it. All the fame, the praise and the hype.
There is literally no other building or structure in New York that can compare with the absolute beauty and glory of the Woolworth building. Cass Gilbert found his own style, although influenced by European heritage and in every nook and corner, his particular brand is stamped on the building. Thoughtful and whimsical, his creation leaves one in awe and a dawning appreciation of that there was a time when commerce lent patronage to art and this city was not simply a hub of trade but a thriving metropolis of all artistic talents.
The building was commissioned by F.W Woolworth in 1910 to serve as the worldwide headquarters for his namesake company that was an international retail giant. It is said that the entrepreneur wanted this building to be a marquee of the empire and serve as a marketing campaign.
Completed in 1913, for $13.5 million, it stood as the tallest building in the world for over 30 years! Woolworth's offices occupied one floor, a bank that financed the building a major chunk of the first few floors and everything else was a commercial real estate, leaving the first (ground floor) for shops with huge display windows into the lobby as well as outside. Woolworth made his millions by selling products for 5 and 10 cents each. And, his empire spread across the US, Europe and Asia. Yet, the only store that was expressly forbidden to have space in the building was a Woolworth store! Irony...
My tour was compered by Anthony Robins, a New York city native and former employee of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission where he served as Deputy Director of Research and Director of Survey. Coincidentally, he did the research and the final report for marking the Woolworth building as an historic landmark. Needless to say, he knew several finer details about the building and was entirely amusing and informative for the entire 90 minutes! I love listening to people who are passionate and knowledgeable, rare as it is in life. This was one of those occasions!
There is so much I learnt about the building that day but, most important of it all is that I came away with a new appreciation for the New York city landscape. The city that continually changes leaving no stone unturned thankfully still manages to retain a lot of her glory. I would love to understand many more iconic buildings in the city that I adore. Ah! Perhaps one day.
In the meantime, if you are visiting the city, here is my advice, skip the Empire State Building tour. Take a Woolworth Tour instead!
Disclaimer: I was invited to tour the facility as a guest of the building. All opinions and thoughts are my own. I received no compensation for saying what I felt and saw.