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Secrets of the Woolworth Building

The Woolworth Building is a New York City skyline wonder. This neo-Gothic historic building was erected in 1913 and was the world’s tallest building until 1930 at a height of 792 feet. Located at 233 Broadway in the Tribeca neighborhood in Lower Manhattan, this building has 30 floors for luxury apartments and the rest for commercial and office tenants. The building’s developer, Frank Winfield Woolworth dreamt of this skyscraper and had architect Cass Gilbert design and create just that.

It cost a total of $13.5 million to construct, and the building has been a National Historic Landmark since 1966.

Woolworth financed the building in cash

As the developer, Woolworth wanted the creative freedom for his dream to become a reality. Also known as the five-and-dime store entrepreneur, he hired Gilbert and worked closely with him to achieve his goal of the tallest building in the world. The total cost of the building expanded from $5 million to $13.5 million because of the demands, but Woolworth was able to finance all the funds with cash, and without help from other developers. This way, he had a lot of control in its design and construction.

A button in the White House controlled the floodlights

As part of the opening ceremony on April 24, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson was able to press a button in the White House that lit up floodlights of the Woolworth Building. This was a newer innovation at the time and it illuminated the entire facade of the building. Aside from the lights, the building also included other groundbreaking features like high-speed electric elevators, its water supply system, self-sustaining electrical power, heating and cooling, and fire protection.

Very hard to get in

With an observation deck that was once open to the public (closed during WWII to prevent spying), the Woolworth Building is closed off to visitors, unless they schedule a tour (closed right now, due to COVID-19). The tour would only be of the Woolworth lobby, but with its marble interior, glass mosaic, gold leaf spread, and dozens of hidden faces and animals, it truly is worth the look. 

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – FEBRUARY 22, 2015: Interior of the Woolworth Building in New York City, USA. It was the tallest building in the world from 1913-1930. Editorial credit: Felix Lipov/ Shutterstock.com

The faces in the walls

Upon first glance, the faces of different people can be seen in the architecture. Although the faces may seem out of place or of fantasy characters, they actually represent the real-life workers who were involved in the construction of the building. One of the faces is even Frank Woolworth himself. There are also faces that represent the four continents.

High-class guests and a high-level dinner

When the Woolworth Building opened, “the highest dinner that was ever held in New York” took place. Woolworth hosted a lavish dinner on the 27th floor. There were 900 VIP guests that consisted of congressmen and several wealthy businessmen. 

Things on the inside

Woolworth was a man with creative taste. He was a lover of Napoleon and had included a Renaissance-style apartment and an “Empire Room” office that was complete with Napoleonic palace decor, memorabilia, and a replica throne chair. With a building like his, it was aimed to attract the most exclusive tenants. The building originally had its own subway platform. The now-sealed-off private passage led to the BMT Broadway Line (the City Hall stop that has been closed since 1945) and IRT (Interborough Rapid Transit). Today, the level that was a subway platform is used for storage. Woolworth had also commissioned a private basement swimming pool below ground. The pool was among one of the building’s most compelling secrets and could only be seen during private tours. However, it has been abandoned since Woolworth’s reign. Other building secrets include the Wooly (bar and club), safe deposit vault, and a water tank.

A few more facts

The building is so memorable that in 1924, a smaller replica (one-third of its original height) of the building was built in Memphis, TN. The building’s facade was restored between 1977 and 1981, in which a lot of the terracotta was replaced with concrete and the Gothic ornaments were removed. The Woolworth building is no longer owned by the Woolworth company. After 85 years of ownership, it was sold to the Witkoff Group in 1998 for $155 million. 

Famous residents

Columbia Records was among the first of the building’s original tenants. They had their own recording studio in the building where the Original Dixieland Jazz Band made one of their first jazz recordings. The Scientific American magazine moved into the building in 1915, and Nikola Tesla was booted from his office in 1914 because he couldn’t pay rent. Modern-day tenants include Starbucks, the NYC Law Department, Joseph Altuzzara’s brand, and a design firm. The top 30 floors were sold in 2012 to begin building luxury apartments for NYC’s most elite, with the most expensive listing at $110 million.

Nina Yu is a writer, new to the city. Her articles have been published to local newspapers and a national women’s online magazine.

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