On our recent Untapped Cities exclusive tour of the Woolworth Building, preservationist Lisa Swyers along with Roy Suskin of The Witkoff Group took us to some truly off-limits spots in the already off-limits building. We went down into the bowels to see the mechanical rooms that support the 57 story building, we saw the famous pool, and we went up to the mezzanine. Aside from the unprecedented access, we learned from our guides some wild facts about the building. It’s our third visit there, and we keep learning new things each time. Here are 10 secrets to whet your appetite for our next Woolworth Building Tour.
Insider Tour of the Woolworth Building
10. Woolworth Building Superlatives—Fastest Elevators and Tallest Chimney
The Woolworth Building used to be powered by coal burners and you can see the enormous undertaking in vintage photographs. At the time of construction, the Woolworth had the tallest chimney in the world. During the course of the building’s renovations, the chimney, which mirrored the height of the building, was demolished and new elevators are being erected in its place. The elevators are going to serve the tower’s tenants. The Woolworth also had the fastest elevators in the world when it opened. The elevator shaft is tapered so that, in the event of a free fall, air cushions will prevent the elevator car from gathering too much speed and plummeting to its doom. Apparently, when the Woolworth was built in 1913, they tested the system by allowing each elevator car to fall.
9. The Exclusive Wooly Bar is A Kitchen During the Day
The Wooly is the Woolworth’s exclusive bar and club, open only for special occasions, but it’s also a great example of 24/7 use. During the day, part of it is used as a kitchen. If you haven’t been inside, it’s decorated like a set to a Wes Anderson film.
8. The Boiler Room
The Woolworth Building’s basement was filled with numerous relics of Woolworth’s attempt to have the building be self-sufficient. An attempt was made to drill through the foundations (which are made up of caissons since the building is located on mud and not bedrock) to reach a fresh water source. After drilling over 1,500 feet, the drill still had not exited the Manhattan schist, Manhattan’s bedrock. The secondary source of water sought was never found. It is the deepest anyone has ever attempted to drill through the bedrock and it is still used as the minimum depth that the schist reaches.
7. The Top of the Woolworth Building Was Layered with Gold Leaf
Roy tells us that it was relatively inexpensive to do something seemingly so grand, as gold can spread thinly and cover over a large surface area. Nonetheless, with the elements, the gold leaf is long gone. The mezzanine mosaics, however, are decorated in glass tesserae and are in great shape.
Get tickets to our next Untapped Cities Woolworth Building tour, led by the building architect Cass Gilbert’s great granddaughter:
6. There’s a Safe Deposit Vault in the Basement
The bank vault at The Woolworth is unique for its double door system
Irving National Bank was the Woolworth Building’s main anchor tenant until relocating to their new headquarters at 1 Wall Street in 1931 (they also changed their name to Irving Trust Company at that time). The bank vault is no longer in use, but still packed to the gills with safety deposit boxes and files.
5. The Doors in the Basement Once Led to the Subway
Now closed off, the doors in the bike room area of the basement once led directly into the subway system. According to Woolworth Building tour guide Jason Crowley, the above red doors once led to a “passageway under Broadway to the BMT and IRT subways. The BMT is now the City Hall R stop and the IRT is the now closed off City Hall stop where the 6 turns around.That passageway was completely filled in under Broadway and no longer exists.”
Just to the left, these two smaller red doors once led to a passageway under Park Place to the 2/3 stop. Crowley says, “If you are in that station where the turnstiles are you can still see the former entrance to the passage with metal bars blocking it.”
4. Part of the Manhattan Project Was Headquartered in the Woolworth Building
According to Roy, the Woolworth Building was where the Manhattan project managed its payroll and produced false identities.The Atomic Heritage Foundation tells us that the Manhattan Project scientists, including spy Klaus Fuchs, actually worked on uranium enrichment inside the Woolworth Building. It’s indeed one of the places listed in this mapping of Manhattan Project locations in NYC.
3. All these Original Decorative Pieces from the top of the Woolworth are in the Basement
This pile of decorative elements is a treasure trove for antique collectors. Originally at the top of the Woolworth Building, they deteriorated from the elements and starting breaking apart. You can imagine how dangerous it would be if one of the spikes fell the nearly 800 feet from the top onto the street. One of them is currently being used as a cast in order to create replacement railings for the building and the rest are stored in the former engine room of the Woolworth Building, which once provided power and lighting to the skyscraper.
2. There’s A Water Tank in the Basement!
The Woolworth Building was built atop a swamp, so this cedar water tank was added to the basement’s engine room in the 1970s to siphon out water that seeps up into the basement floor. It wasn’t used for long because the minerals from the water basically ate through the pipes. The water tank just sits pretty these days, in good shape protected from exterior elements.
1. There’s An Abandoned Pool and Hot Tub in the Basement
Woolworth’s vision of the pool—a luxurious and lavish Pompeian pool and hot tub—was never quite realized. The pool had its best use as a Jack Lalanne fitness club, but it’s boarded up today. However, there are plans to renovate the pool along with part of the building that will be turned into condos. Another fun fact: It’s the second oldest pool in the city, after the one at Teachers College, according to Roy. Also, the pool contained a drain to allow the water to be used by the building’s fire prevention system as another method to ensure it’s safety (since it was constructed right after the sinking of the Titanic, which was allegedly unsinkable, Woolworth wanted to ensure that his building truly was impervious).
The remnants of the hot tub
Get tickets to our next Untapped Cities exclusive Woolworth Building tour which includes a visit to the basement vault level: