Since architect Bradley Gilbert had designed the Tower Building at 50 Broadway in 1888 buildings in New York City had been getting taller and taller. The Tower had been designed so that the outside walls did not carry all of the weight of the building. Using steel beams, builders created “cages” that would support the weight and meant that a buildings could go higher and higher without increasing the width of the base.
New technology that allowed for the inexpensive production of steel and the invention of the elevator made it seem that buildings in New York, where land was at a premium, could go as high as the stars.
Since the Tower Building the skyscrapers in New York had shot up as companies competed with each other to have the tallest building in the world. The Syndicate Building at 15 Park Row, built in 1899 held the record for nine years at 391 feet tall. In 1908 though, the Singer Sewing Machine Company built a tower that dwarfed the Syndicate at 612 feet.
But the Singer tower’s reign would be short lived when the Metropolitan Life tower topped out at 700 feet in 1910. “The Met” now held the title and the prestige that went with it.
By 1910 Frank Woolworth’s five and ten cent store had become enormously successful. Now 58 years old he wanted a monument to himself and the company he had built.. He commissioned architect Cass Gilbert to design a Gothic Revival Style building that would be even higher than the Met Life Tower. The cost to build the new tower would be $13.5 million and Woolworth paid cash. Quite a few nickels and dimes.
At 233 Broadway between Barclay Street and Park Place the building shot up. On April 24, 1913 President Woodrow Wilson pressed a telegraph button in the White House and 80,000 lights illuminated the skyscraper for its grand opening.
The Woolworth building was now the tallest building in the world at 792 feet. It’s reign as such would last for seventeen years, the longest reign up to that time. But more than this the Woolworth was a thing of beauty. The steel skeleton was sheathed in cream coloured terra cotta from the fourth floor to the top. The outside was detailed with flying buttresses, pinnacles and gargoyles. Inside was 932,000 square feet of the most modern office space in the world.
Frank Woolworth’s five and dime stores are no longer with us, but the Woolworth building is still one of the top attractions of New York.