The Real Deal New York

They built New York: Frank W. Woolworth

The retail pioneer's namesake building was once the tallest in the world

October 27, 2015 04:20PM
By Eileen AJ Connelly

Frank Woolworth Building

From left: Frank W. Woolworth and the Woolworth Building

Although he made his money in his once-ubiquitous five-and-dime stores, Woolworth’s biggest stamp on New York was the Downtown tower that bears his name.

The skyscraper as we know it was already well established when Woolworth started his project, said Francis Morrone, a professor at New York University and author of “New York City Landmarks,” which features the Woolworth on its cover. In fact, the 11-story Tower Building, built in 1889, a few blocks north, was demolished in late 1913, a few months after the Woolworth opened.

But from the crafty land assemblage labeled a “realty triumph” for Woolworth’s agent, Edward Hogen (who spent $4.5 million acquiring the parcels), to its record-setting height, the building had lasting impact.

Designed by one of the era’s starchitects, Cass Gilbert, it was originally planned as 30 stories, but grew to 57, while the budget climbed to $13.5 million.

The neo-Gothic structure was a sensation at its debut. Clad in gleaming white architectural terra-cotta (much of it removed during subsequent renovations), and with a gilded roof stretching to 792 feet, it surpassed the Metropolitan Life Insurance Tower as the tallest building in the world.

It was a “soaring symbol of American pride” at a time when the nation was taking its place among the world’s great powers, Morrone noted in his book. On April 24, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson pressed a button in Washington D.C. to illuminate its 5,000-plus windows for the first time.

“This building and the success of its owner shows that this is the land of equal opportunities; that a man may start with nothing and accomplish everything,” Gilbert said at the opening ceremony for the building dubbed “The Cathedral of Commerce,” for its resemblance to European cathedrals and its ornate lobby.
Also notable is that the Woolworth Building was built largely on speculation. At the time, companies building high-profile towers did so for their own use. But the dime-store operator occupied just two floors, enabling Woolworth to profit from renting the rest.

“I saw possibilities of making this the greatest income producing property in which I could invest my money,” Woolworth told a newspaper in 1912. Among the first tenants were the Irving National Exchange Bank and Columbia Records.
The landmarked property was owned by the Woolworth Co. until 1998, when, less than a year after the last five-and-dime closed, its successor company sold it to the Witkoff Group for $155 million.

Today, it’s part of another significant New York trend: its top 30 floors are being converted into super-luxury condos by Alchemy Properties, which purchased the upper reaches of the building in 2012 for $68 million. The 9,400-square-foot penthouse, dubbed the “Pinnacle,” is being marketed for $110 million.