What I Learned About the Woolworth Building

The Skyscraper Museum‘s new exhibit, “The Woolworth Building @ 100,” is a worthwhile visit for anyone who loves the building—and who doesn’t? The museum is at 39 Battery Place (in the Ritz-Carlton building), and it’s open Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 6 p.m. Admission is $5.

Eight things in particular stuck with me….

1. “Eighty thousand incandescent bulbs”—remember those?—”illuminated the New York night on April 24, 1913, when the Woolworth Building opened [….] President Woodrow Wilson pressed a button in the White House that simultaneously lit every interior floor and the brilliant tower beacon.”

2. “Woolworth idolized and perhaps identified with Napoleon Bonaparte, whom he referred to as a ‘wonderful businessman’ and ‘originator in nearly everything.’ He collected Napoleonic memorabilia and decorated his new 24th-floor executive headquarters […] with items from his trove, including a life-sized portrait of the Emperor in his coronation robes, a bust of Napoleon as Julius Caesar, and a clock purported to have been given to Napoleon by Czar Alexander I of Russia.”

3. The original plan was for the building to be 30 stories.

4. General contractor “Thompson-Starrett contracted to be paid $300,000* for their work, and they delivered the building on time (under a revised schedule) for their guaranteed construction costs of $4,308,500.” (*The text says $300,0000, so I’m guessing here.)

5. “The building’s exterior is clad with over 400,000 pieces of terra cotta.”

6. Architect Cass “Gilbert’s new design may have inspired Woolworth to claim a 60-story height at the building’s opening ceremony on April 24th, 1913. In fact the building still contained 55 stories, although many of these were much higher (17.5 and 20 feet) than originally planned. Woolworth’s count included ‘new’ mezzanine stories within the tower […] none of which could be comfortably occupied.”

7. “The most significant loss of original terra cotta ornament over the past century was the tourelles—the four little towers that once rose from the 49th to 51st story at the corner of the main shaft. These delicate, openwork towers, which the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company called minarets, were constructed as separate structures, each with its own steel skeleton, and were decorated with Gothic tracery and amusing dog-head gargoyles. […] The space between [the terra cotta pieces] eventually allowed for water infiltration, and after decades of weathering, the tourelles were in critical condition. In a 1978 facade restoration, the owners and project  architects decided to cover what remained of the tourelles with an aluminum sheath similar in shape and color to the original design, instead of replacing them.”

8. There was an observatory with outdoor terrace on the 58th floor; to reach it from the 54th floor, visitors “could take a six-person circular glass elevator or climb a spiral stair.” Tickets were 50¢, or $11.60 today.

There are a lot of wonderful archival photos. These two are my favorite. The first is courtesy Atlantic Terra Cotta Company (those are some of its workers); the second is courtesy Detroit Publishing Co.—it was taken circa 1910-1920, and get a load of the City Hall Post Office in the foreground! And the cute block to the north of the Woolworth Building!

Woolworth Building workerWoolworth Building at nightFor more Woolworth Building goodness, check out Annika K. Martin’s photos from a 2011 tour.



  1. This is wonderful! I absolutely adore the Woolworth Building, and recently wrote a piece on what its fashion sense would be like if it could dress: http://nakedrealestate.com/2012/11/if-the-woolworth-building-could-dress/

    The Wooly is also a great venue.

  2. I can’t wait to see the exhibit. I love the Woolworth. I understand it, but I am disappointed that they no longer allow people in to look at the lobby.

  3. Thanks so much for posting about this exhibit. As you say, who doesn’t love the Woolworth building! I live directly across the street (from the museum) and probably would have missed it, but now will make sure i get there.

  4. This warms my heart. I worked there for 15 years before they closed their doors. It will be with me forever.

    Would like to go and see it and this will revive the past.

  5. I love these historical stories of New York’s architecture. As a city that is always on the move, always renewing, to be reminded of the beauty and innovation that they represented at the time of their construction, and still today, I find it gives us a sense of grounding for the tomorrows to come.

    I can see the top of the Woolworth tower from my West Village apartment. Overshadowed by larger buildings but even from that distant it rises into the New York sky and holds its own. Would love to see this exhibit. Thanks for posting.