Friday, August 4, 2017


I think ever since I've been in New York there's always been a sign at the entrance to the Woolworth building saying "No Visitors". Being a fan of the building and aware of its beautiful lobby this was very discouraging.
What I recently learned is now there is a tour organization connected to the building offering tours for 30, 60 or 90 minutes costing from $20 to $45 per person, and let me tell you I jumped at the opportunity and it's well worth the expense.
You need to reserve your space on the tour before showing up no walk-ins are allowed and let me tell you anyone trying to walk in is abruptly turned away. The guide has a list and he works it like a bouncer at the Met Gala.
Despite his regimental attitude toward interlopers our guide was engaging, well informed and very very funny.
I only did the 30-minute tour that gets you only into the main lobby but the only thing we missed was the basement vault and walk around the balcony. The lobby is by far the best visual jewel of the building anyway since the upper floors and tower are off limits.
Here's what I learned from our engaging guide. Woolworth was a self-made man, a retail genius and an egomaniac.
He started out with his only retail experience being playing "store" with his younger brother. At 16 he talked his way into a retail job where he was paid nothing and discovered he had no aptitude for selling but learned he was great at display. By 1878 he opened his first "Five and Dime". By 1911 he had 586 stores.
The Woolworth Building was built in a short three years in 1913 at a cost of $13.5 million that he paid for in cash. Translate that into 2017 dollars and you'll see this is no tiny penny. He built it as the tallest building in New York City, a tribute to his ego.
The building was designed by Cass Gilbert and this is the main reason for my fascination with it. Cass Gilbert was a noted architect having designed the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C. and the state capitols of Minnesota, Arkansas and West Virginia.
He also designed a building on West 30th Street that bears his name. It's been turned into a condominium and we were lucky enough to be among the first residents.
It was one of our favorite addresses and let me tell you we've had a few places we've called home in several of the boroughs that make up New York City.
Before the tours became an option I thought that by showing a utility bill with the name of the Woolworth's architect on it that would somehow get me a golden ticket to get inside but that plan never worked out.
So I was very excited about finally getting a chance to at least stand in the lobby of the Woolworth building.
The lobby is a host of mixed messages with architectural details representing its predominately Gothic Revivalism with touches of
Moorish, Medieval, French, English, Italian
and Early Christian styles.
The lobby was originally ringed with a host of retail stores
that faced in servicing the people who worked there.
Shortly after the building opened a German restaurant opened in the basement but with poor timing. Within a few years when World War One broke out the restaurant went the way of Germany and closed.

If you look at the corbels framing the arched staircases you'll see tribute being paid to the people who were important to the construction of the building.
There's Cass Gilbert holding a miniature version of the building
and then there's F.W. himself counting nickels and dimes. Woolworth, a diminutive man in real life, had his visage depicted in a muscle shirt with guns worthy of massive gym rat. Vanity can be cruel.
One of the first tenants of the building was the Irving Trust Company and their basement vault is still intact in the basement of the building although you'll have to pay for one of the longer tours to go down and look at it.
The building also had its own subway station. The platform still exists but the trains no longer stop there.
I'd always thought the stained glass ceiling in the lobby was a Tiffany creation but I was wrong.
The stained glass was designed and built by Heinigke and Bowen
The art of commerce and labor are also highlighted in arched murals appearing at both ends of the lobby
The building today continues to function as an office building on its lower half
while the upper floors are currently being turned into condominiums with the top of the tower being transformed into single penthouse currently on the market for a mere $120 million. Who's ready for a down payment although I'll assume that the eventual purchaser will do a Woolworth and buy it for cash.
The Woolworth Building at Night
Photographer unidentified
Available for purchase through

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