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Woolworth | © alan miles/Flickr
Woolworth | © alan miles/Flickr
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A Brief History Of NYC's Historic Woolworth Building

Picture of Allison Poris
Updated: 9 January 2017
Over 100 years ago, the Woolworth Building made its mark on New York City as the tallest skyscraper in the world. Built in 1913 by world-renowned architect Cass Gilbert and financed by its namesake, Frank W. Woolworth, this iconic building garnered instant fame with its extravagant interior and brooding, Gothic design. The building has since collected decades of history behind its now-closed doors.

Founded by five-and-dime millionaire Frank W. Woolworth, the Woolworth Corporation was looking to expand its empire and establish its headquarters in New York City by the year 1910. Woolworth’s five and ten-cent stores – think early 20th-century versions of Wal-Mart or Target – were quickly becoming American staples, offering drugstore items, groceries, and apparel in one convenient place. Woolworth was not only looking to create a flagship location for his company but also to erect an entire building that he could open to other tenants.

Inspired by the Gothic aesthetic of European cathedrals, Woolworth enlisted the help of designer and architect Cass Gilbert to create his one-of-a-kind skyscraper at 233 Broadway. $13.5 million in construction later, the Woolworth Building was erected in a neo-Gothic style, towering 60 stories above the city. The building officially opened in April 1913, when President Woodrow Wilson turned the lights on from Washington D.C. Between 1913 and 1930, the Woolworth Building was the tallest skyscraper in the world. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and was declared a New York City landmark in 1983.

Adorned with intricate murals and mosaics, gargoyles, a grand, stained-glass ceiling light and layers of gold leaf, additionally equipped with the fastest and safest elevators in the world, the Woolworth Building was referred to as ‘The Cathedral of Commerce’. It was also an immediate hit amongst tourists. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, visitors from around the world enjoyed the finest amenities offered, including a grand arcade, the city’s second-oldest swimming pool, and awe-inspiring panoramic views of Lower Manhattan.

While the Woolworth Building garnered international attention throughout the following decades, new landmark buildings were continuously erected and slowly stole the spotlight. After over 70 years of iconic status, the Woolworth Building officially closed its doors to the public in 1998, when it was sold to the Witkoff Group. But in recent years, it’s made something of a comeback. Now, tourism groups such as Untapped Cities offer guided tours of selected wings of the building, allowing visitors to walk through the remainder of the dazzling lobby, the old shopping arcade, bank vaults, old subway entrances, and retro elevators.

The Woolworth Building’s stunning architecture and rich history in New York City has been somewhat eclipsed over the years as skyscrapers grew taller and more efficient. While other landmarks surpass this building in height, few can surpass its splendor. To book a tour, visit www.woolworthtours.com.