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For Frank Woolworth’s Dream: "The Woolworth Building”

What I love most about my city is that on any given day I find a new way to appreciate the raw beauty of the history that envelopes us. Such a new view was a recent reward after I took a private tour of the Woolworth Building.

The Woolworth Building is located at 233 Broadway in lower Manhattan. The entrance remains slightly obscure from the street behind some scaffolding that looms over it. It is only a few blocks from Ground Zero, the 9/11 museum, Trinity Church, City Hall, and the Brooklyn Bridge. There are countless tourist attractions abound in the area but my goal here is to share with you the beauty of this experience and why you too should add it to you NYC to do list, as I had it on mine.

My afternoon tour was guided by Lisa, a uniquely funny and brilliant woman, who has spent many a day scouring over the papers, books, and archives at the New York Historical Society. I think the only person with more knowledge about this building was the architect Cass Gilbert himself. Coincidentally it is his great granddaughter Helen Post Curry, who hooked me up with this tour. At the time I did not recognize how privileged this communication was but now it just furthers my excitement to tell you about this special place.

This building with its Gothic exterior and interior that combines a mixture of styles (Grecian, Roman, French, etc.) was completed in 1913. 

“As part of a lavish opening ceremony on April 24, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson pressed a button in the White House that lit up the interior floors and exterior floodlights (a new innovation at the tine) of the Woolworth Building, so that the entire façade was illuminated.”

The total cost was about thirteen million dollars and Frank Woolworth paid for this in cash!! No loans for that man. That is dumbfounding. I am proud of myself just for paying cash when I go clothes shopping. I guess I have to step up my game. 

From 1913 until the completion of the Chrysler Building in 1930, The Woolworth Building remained the tallest building in the world. In 1966 it was made a National Historic Landmark.

For those who are too young to know who Frank Woolworth was, he was the man behind the legendary nickel and dime store, that also had a lunch counter, that bore his name, “Woolworths”. He was a man from meager beginnings who grew up in upstate New York and used his talents to create something that never existed before. He transformed both his life as well as the way the country shopped. It was these stores that made Frank his millions and thus led him to build his dream headquarters where I stood outside waiting for my tour to begin. 

Lisa told me something that has stuck with me since; “What you see is a result of the client but what you don't is by design of the architect”. I am paraphrasing of course but this was a lesson I would see as we moved around the perimeter and even more so once we began exploring the interior.

The Woolworth Building is not open for tourists only for tenants and visitors so this was my first time stepping inside. An interesting little tidbit is that the Manhattan Project had been a tenant here at one time which is hard to picture. 

The interior is simply stunning. You almost do not know where to look first. Thankfully I had Lisa to grab my attention and control my focus which ensured that I didn't miss anything. 

I learned that the first floor of the building was long held by Irving National Bank which is now occupied by New York University. In the lower level I got to see the old vault door that made me feel like I was all of a suddenly staring in Ocean’s Eleven. Sadly George Clooney was no where to be found. Down there were the old tunnels where MTA transportation use to bring commuters to work every day. They seem to be in remarkably good shape. I loved seeing such a large part of the past in the present. 

I adored the original gold mailbox/post office in the lobby that use to receive mail from floors above when there was a working shoot. There was an unusual detail that had a shocking, hidden meaning; salamanders beautifully carved all around. Apparently salamanders are the only animal to walk through fire and survive. I don't know if that myth is true but it was believed at the time. Seeing these animals on display at such a central location within the building was a sign of the many fire prevention methods at play. For such a tall building, a new sight at the time, fire was a great concern. Thankfully there has never been one. Who knows maybe the salamanders worked their magic. 

We were able to work our way up to the mezzanine level and take a closer looking at the magnificent ceiling which is comprised of numerous tiny tiles that appear as one image from the ground floor. The color, the detail, as well as the images are breathing all the more up close. 

When I think of the time period when this masterpiece was built it is a stunning feat. For one thing the Hudson River was significantly closer than it resides now thats to land fill, so the materials that were needed were shipped over from New Jersey and horses pulled them to the building site. That meant that horses had been in the building! Lisa had a picture of this to show me and I was amazed. I could had starred at it forever. This place was such a marvel of engineering at that time it reminded me of a modern version of the pyramids. 

I saved my very favorite part of the building for last. That would be the sculptures of the men who played an integral part of bringing this building to life, including of course Cass Gilbert and the man himself, Frank Woolworth. They are located at the top corners of all of the entryways on the first floor. This is such a personal, creativity touch it will always come to mind when I think of this building. I have never seen anything like it. For this touch alone The Woolworth Building is totally winning. 

This ninety minute tour was mind blowing. Of all of the details and information I gathered I felt mentally and physically transformed to the past and back again. Places like this are so special as we live in a day and age where there isn't nearly enough preservation. I hate that the over commercialization of NYC is claiming parts of the past that we can never get back. 

Case in point, The Woolworth Building is currently under construction turning the upper levels into condos. The old observation deck, that use to get covered in smoke blowing out from Frank Woolworth’s office, will now act as a backyard for the penthouse apartment, which I wouldn't mind owning someday.

In the end Frank’s life and legacy came down the what he left behind. Although many won’t remember his stores and the part they played in our culture, I surely do. I remember visiting the one in my neighborhood many, many times with both my mother and grandmother. I remember taking the escalator downstairs was the first thing we always did. I wasn't particularly interesting in what they were buying but it was a ritual. 

As I grew and learned about the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina where the infamous sit-in protest took place during the Civil Rights era, I see the larger symbolization of the central role those stores played in our lives.

For all of these reasons Woolworth’s, the store, the man, and now the building will always resonate within me. I am grateful this tour further cemented this fact and brought this knowledge to the forefront of my mind. 

I am also incredibly pleased to have crossed this off my 2016/2017 to do list. 

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