Professor Jason Montgomery
History of NYC Arch 3522
December 11, 2019
The Woolworth Building
One of the earliest skyscrapers designed in New York City was the Woolworth Building designed by Cass Gilbert. Gilbert designed other buildings such as the United States Supreme Court building in Washington, DC, the state capitols of Minnesota in St. Paul, and in West Virginia and the Saint Louis Art Museum and Public Library (Totten & National Trust, 2015).
The construction of the Woolworth Building started in 1910. The building officially opened on April 24, 1913. In 1913 the Woolworth building was one of the tallest building in the world measuring 60 stories high and 792 feet above the ground (Totten & National Trust, 2015).. It is still considered to be one of the tallest buildings in New York City . Throughout history, it has transformed from a commercial building to a residential building. This building contains office spaces, a health club, a social club, a barbershop, restaurants, and a shopping arcade when it was first completed. (Jacobs, 2017).
One aspect of the historical significance of the Woolworth Building is its use of steel frame construction that makes possible the building’s vast height (Herman 1). This building is important to study because it is both a National Historic Landmark and a New York City designated landmark. In 1939 the first Jazz recording for Original Dixieland Jazz Band was recorded in the Woolworth Building. In the late 20th century Kellex Corporation developed nuclear weapons for the Manhattan Project in this building ((Levine, 2018). The Woolworth Building also rented property to different educational schools such as Fordham University Graduate School, other Business Schools, Law Schools, Sociology departments, and Social Service departments were also located there. In 2012 the top 30 floors of the building were sold to the Witkoff Group. The Wikoff Group turned the office floors into a residential area for people to live in.
I chose to write about the Woolworth building because of its striking appearance. I admired the Neo Gothic architectural features showcased on the exterior of the building such as the flying buttresses and the thirteen different terra cottas. I have always had a deep appreciation for the early American skyscrapers. Skyscrapers have allowed cities to expand upward instead of outward. Skyscrapers enable people to reach to the Sky. The Woolworth Building is an icon for New York City. I was mesmerized by the building’s sheer height and how it was the tallest building in existence when it was constructed. Cass Gilbert is my favorite architect because his classical designs displayed in architectural work. This building used high tech technology in an innovative way.
The first skyscraper in New York City was the Tower Building (Figure 1). The architect who designed this building was Bradford Gilbert, and construction began April 17, 1888. The building was 11 stories tall and it was 128 ft in height. Stone and brick were some of the main materials that were used for this building, because after the Great Fire in 1835 they had to think about the materials that were going into the building to prevent what happened from wood-frame construction. The Tower Building is not a load bearing masonry structure. The next tallest building in New York City was the Little Singer Building, it was designed by Ernest Flagg in 1904. It was the tallest building in the world in 1908 when it was completed. The building was in Lower Manhattan, in the Financial District. The building facade was made from red steel, steel, and reddish terra cotta. Red steel is manufactured with no rush or it can also be a red coating on the steel. The Woolworth Building then became the tallest building in the world in 1913. The Woolworth was the tallest building until the Chrysler building was built. In 1930 the height of the Chrysler building measured 319 m tall with 77 floors. The skyscraper is characterized by its Art Deco-Style, the roof has a decorative metal cladding that was not common during this era. In 1931 the Empire State Building later became the tallest skyscraper measuring 443 m tall with 102 floors. The skyscraper is composed of a distinguished Art-Deco facade. This building was completed in record time under fifteen months.
The Woolworth Building was designed as a vertical thrust unlike earlier skyscrapers in New York and Chicago that are horizontality orientated (“Gilbert, Woolworth Building” 2019). The Woolworth Building heavily influenced later skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center “The Woolworth Building at 100” 2018).
The Empire State Building measured 1, 454 ft. with the antenna, the roof height was 1,250 ft. The Chrysler Building measured 1,046 ft. and the 40 Wall Street Building 925 ft. (“The Empire State Building: Race to the Sky” 2019). As a result, the Woolworth building looks shorter compared to other buildings in Lower Manhattan.
Figure 1. The Tower Building was the first skyscraper in New York City, it was 7-stories tall and pointed archer on top of the building as seen in the photo.
Figure 2. 1The Little Singer Building was the was next tallest building in New York City. The roof of the building is flat, and it was the next tall skyscraper in New York City in 1904.
Figure 3. The Chrysler building roof has a decorative metal cladding that was not common during this era.
Figure 4. For the Empire state Building the way it the ended the roof was by adding an Antenna which made the building 1,454 Feet (443.2 m) tall. stands a total of 1,454 feet (443.2 m) tall, including its antenna.
The Woolworth building remains in the top 40 tallest buildings in New York City. In 1915 the Woolworth building received the Medal of Honor in San Francisco. Fifty-three years after the building was officially opened the building became a National Landmark. The skyscraper later became a New York City Landmark in 1983.
The general architectural period surrounding the Woolworth Building was characterized by the revival of old architecture and Historicist Skyscrapers (Miller, 2014). In 1910 American homes featured neoclassicism with different architectural styles such as Bungalow, Prairie School, and Queen Anne (Miller, 2014). Skyscrapers became very popular during this period. The Woolworth Building contributed to the start of the “architectural race” where architects attempted to build higher than before (Miller, 2014).
The Woolworth Building is in Lower Manhattan between 233 Broadway and Park Place. The base of the building is extended over the full block on Broadway in the middle of Park Place and Barclay Street (Harvey, 2016). The building was constructed across the street to the Post office and near the main passageway to the shopping center in the past. The Woolworth Building was also close to City Hall Park. In the 1920s and 30s, the Woolworth Building had a 400-square-foot observatory where visitors were enthralled by the picturesque view that they could see in every direction. The observatory allowed tourists to see a panorama view of the coastal shoreline, the geographic area of lower Manhattan, East River, and New Jersey (Alexander, 2017). In this century the Woolworth Building is considered to be short compared to the surrounding building.
*Building environment(micro) The Woolworth Building was constructed opposite the Post office and near the main passageway to the shopping center. It was also close to City Hall Park (Sutton, 2013).
*Key relaxed building (Macro) The Woolworth Building West side view of the coastal region (Sutton, 2013).
Frank Woolworth wanted the building to be designed with Neo-Gothic style because he wanted the skyscraper to have a luxurious look showing his wealth and success. The Gargoyles on the building came from European medieval architecture which was eye-catching. The lobby had regal mosaics and stained glass which was from early Christian art and architecture.
The theoretical underpinning design for the Woolworth Building was based on Louis Sullivan’s vertical aesthetic. Vertical aesthetic emphasizes vertical components and downplays horizontal features (Koeper 2019). Gilbert uses this concept of building vertically for the construction of the Woolworth building. The vertical aesthetic is also characterized by “deep decorative frieze and a projecting cornice” (Koeper 2019). The cornice of the Woolworth building is the decorative trim on the exterior ledge of the building. According to the book Skyscraper Gothic Medieval Style and Modernist Buildings architect Cass Gilbert examines Sullivan’s ideas of vertical and “modern theoretical underpinnings” as a feature for skyscrapers. Woolworth and Gilbert also use Beaux-Art designs with baroque Gothic elements (Murphy & Reilly, 2017).
The Woolworth Building creates a precedent that other building designers followed. Gilbert used steel frame construction techniques for the Woolworth building (“Gilbert, Woolworth Building” 2019). The steel frame construction enables the building to gain height and stability.
The Woolworth building used a Neo-Gothic architectural style, it has arches and flying buttresses, and on the top of the building there are gargoyles. The facade is made from the light gray, limestone-colored glazed, terra-cotta facade. Gilbert also had an idea to design eight different types of terra cotta motifs designed for the window spandrel, each had a different style but were all Neo-Gothic architecture. In 1977 and 1981 the building had renovations which removed and replaced the Terra-Cotta panels with concrete panels. The lower portions of the Woolworth Building are limestone. The height of the building is 792 Feet | 241 Meters which is 1.3 Million Gross Square Footage. The Woolworth Building had over 2,000 offices which ranged from 11′ feet to 20′ feet high.
The structure of the building was made from 24,000 tons of steel girders. The building sits on top of bedrock for its foundation. The materials that were used for this building were 17,000,000 bricks, 87 miles of electrical wire, the plumbing had 53,000 pounds of bronze and iron hardware, 3,000 steel doors, 7,500 tons of terra cotta which was used for the building facade, and 28,000 tons of hollow tile (Herman & Herman). The exterior of the building included subtle hues of color and a picturesque white terracotta façade.
The lobby is made from Syros-veined marble, sculptures, and architectural touches. The ceiling is vaulted and painted with Mosaic Art on the wall. When you enter the building the first thing you see is a Mosaic laid tile on the wall which makes the room appear brighter. The bronze decor in the lobby, aesthetically pleasing. The building’s inner exterior has luxurious gold-decked plaster coffered ceilings, sculptures, and mosaics. There are a few amenities in the building as well, such as a barbershop, restaurant, and a social club. On the 57th Floor there is an observatory, but it is now closed for viewing. There is a private swimming pool located in the basement, which is used for the owners of the building and private clients.
Figure 5 Interior lobby
Mr. Woolworth wanted to install air cushions into the elevator shafts after the construction has finished in order, to provide a much safer and more protected ride for passengers when taking the elevator. The building’s elevator was tested to make sure it was safe to ride. The way they tested this was by putting a ballast of 7,500 pound of weight in the elevator dropping from the forty-sixth floor to the first floor. It was a successful test and the air cushions were very strong which helped make it safer for passengers (History.com Editors, 2010). The building has a total of 34 elevators, which is 13,200,000 cubic sq. The elevator system that was used was “Otis Elevator Company” which provided the building with very high-speed elevators that went (210 m) per minute. During the 1900s that was considered very fast and safe at that rate (History.com Editors, 2010).
Figure 6. This is one of the general plans that was used in The Woolworth Building, as we can see in the photo it is the 51St floor.
Figure 7. This is one of the cross sections of The Woolworth Building, in the image it is 750 feet tall.
Figure 8. This image shows us three sides of The Woolworth Building elevation. It is a very beautiful building as we can see.
The Woolworth Building has significance because of the historical events that occurred in the building. For example, Kellex Corporation had offices for the top-secret Manhattan Project which dealt with nuclear weapons. (“Manhattan, NY”). The Woolworth Building nickname is, The “Cathedral of Commerce”, which had a cathedral style lobby. The Woolworth skyscraper is considered to be an icon because it was the tallest building from 1913-1930 and it has a magnificent inner and exterior appearance (Jacobs, 2017). Numerous skyscrapers after the Woolworth building used this as a blueprint model for their own skyscraper designs.
The Woolworth building is innovative because it was one of the first skyscraper to utilize steel frame construction techniques. The Woolworth Building used fireproofing techniques. The building’s inner structure is composed of steel beams enclosed with terra cotta clay material that is heat resistant (Saraniero 2019). The bottom exterior level of the building contains limestone which also is a fire repellent material (Saraniero 2019). The decorative ceiling is made from painted plaster coffered; it is noncombustible. Another innovative feature of the Woolworth building was the elevators. The building had the quickest elevators in the world (Saraniero 2019). It is a self-sufficient building with its own water supply, electrical power, and fire protection techniques. During the opening ceremony of the building, President Woodrow Wilson used an innovative technique to illuminate the building. From the White House, he clicked a button to light up both the exterior floodlights and interior floors of the building (Boys, 2018).
The Woolworth Building is different compared to other buildings during this period. For example, the sheer purpose of Chicago skyscrapers was commercial office use only (“Gilbert, Woolworth Building” 2019). The Woolworth building had offices and other uses such as a health club, social club, restaurant, and shopping arcade (History.com Editors, 2010). The Chicago skyscrapers were horizontality orientated with a separation between the tower and the base. However, the Woolworth skyscraper has no separation of the tower and base, so it continuously flows vertically. During this time other buildings used wood as a primary material in construction. The Woolworth skyscraper was the second tallest structure in the world, the first being the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
The Woolworth Building created a subsequent architectural design by starting the first race of the sky (“Race for the Sky – Part 1” 2014). Skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, and the 40 Wall Street Building competed with each other to have the tallest structure. The architects kept restructuring the building by adding additional floors and altering the building’s design. The winner of the race to the sky was the Empire State building.
Overall, it may be stated that the Woolworth building is a remarkable icon for New York City because it was one of the earliest skyscrapers that utilized revolutionary technology and set precedent standards for future skyscrapers. The building massing and detailing design is elegant. The Neo-Gothic style of the building creates a unique design for the building. The building inspired a movement with “the race to the sky” where building designers re-thought the concepts of how skyscrapers are supposed to look and function.
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