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Skyscraper Museum celebrates Woolworth Building’s 100 years
By Susan Emerson Nutter

NEW YORK, N.Y. — Reaching the 100-year milestone is an event that deserves a celebration. When a historic structure makes it to the century mark, those responsible for its creation and longevity should be recognized, too.

The Woolworth Building @ 100; a centennial exhibition on display now through July 14 at The Skyscraper Museum in New York, is just such a celebration. All aspects of what went into the construction of the Woolworth Building and the history surrounding the structure are featured here.

The year 1913 saw many modern structural wonders being erected in New York. The first was the Grand Central Terminal, which was followed by the Woolworth Building’s opening on April 24. When President Woodrow Wilson flipped a ceremonial switch in Washington, D.C., 80,000 incandescent bulbs throughout the tower lit up. The Skyscraper Museum details not only the historical significance of the Woolworth Building but highlights the structure’s makers, as well.

Frank W. Woolworth, the five-and-dime store king, wanted to create a building the likes of which had never been seen before. Using his own personal fortune, and being involved with the building’s creation from concept to completion, Woolworth achieved what he set out to do.

Dubbed the “Cathedral of Commerce,” the Woolworth Building not only dominated New York’s skyline, it claimed the title of world’s tallest office building until 1929. Standing 792 feet from base to the tip of its spire, the Woolworth Building resembles a great Gothic tower.

This Skyscraper Museum’s exhibit details the impact of the skyscraper, the achievements of its designers and builders and celebrates all that went into creating such architectural marvels; specifically the Woolworth Building.

The architect responsible for the Woolworth Building, Cass Gilbert, known for defining a skyscraper as being simply a “machine to make the land pay,” had originally planned that the Woolworth Building was only going to be a 20-story office building. Ten months’ worth of Gilbert’s evolving design from original sketches to presentation drawings details how a simple building morphed into a 57-story structure that consumed a full city block in size.

Once the design phase was done, another 29 months would be needed to bring Gilbert’s renderings to reality. The exhibit tracks the building’s construction process that was directed by Thompson-Starrett, the general contractor for this undertaking. Gilbert’s wish to elevate his tower beyond the realm of real estate to the status of a civic monument was a success.

The Woolworth Building @ 100 highlights the wider picture of the advanced technology of the structure’s engineering and construction, but also examines the abundance and variety of its handmade terra-cotta ornament. More than 15 million pounds or 7,500 tons of cream-colored glazed terra cotta covers the tower’s steel skeleton. The terra-cotta work was manufactured by the Atlantic Terra Cotta Co. of Tottenville, Staten Island and Perth Amboy, N.J. Sculpted in an array of Gothic buttresses, tracery, finials and gargoyles, the work is magnificent.

The upper floors of the building feature polychrome accents in bright blues, light green and golden hues giving the ornament depth.

The upkeep of a tower made of fired clay is also examined in this exhibit. Dealing with such a delicate building material has been a problem since before the Woolworth Building was even completed and continues today.

New replacement pieces of ornament made by Gladding-McBean and the plaster molds used to make these are also on display.

Rounding out the exhibit is section that discusses the Woolworth Building’s place in popular culture. The purpose of creating the structure was to promote the F.W. Woolworth Co., and the building has been successful in doing so.

The tower also appeared on items sold by Woolworth’s including sewing needles and dominoes, as well as souvenirs, post cards, paperweights and miniature building replicas, examples which are on display.

The Woolworth Building remains one of the 50 tallest buildings in the United States, as well as one of the 20 tallest buildings in New York. It has been a National Historic Landmark since 1966, and a New York landmark since 1983. Today the structure houses office space below with luxury residences planned for the upper tower.

Working as guest co-curator with Museum Director Carol Willis is Gail Fenske, author of The Skyscraper and the City: The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York (University of Chicago Press, 2008). Susan Tunick served as a consultant on the architectural terra cotta section.

The Woolworth Building @ 100 is presented with generous support by the owners of the Woolworth Building, The Witkoff Group and Cammeby’s International, Ltd. Additional support provided by Alchemy Properties Inc.

The Skyscraper Museum, located at 39 Battery Place in New York, is open from noon until 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission is $5; $2.50 for students and seniors.

Contact: (212) 968-1961

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