The lobby of the Woolworth Building is one of a small group of interior spaces in New York City that has earned landmark status, and when you look around at its elaborate decor, it is easy to see why. As you look around at the marble walls, sculpted reliefs, and gilded Gothic tracery, your eyes are pulled up towards the stunning cathedral-like ceilings. In designing the lobby of the building, architect Cass Gilbert had to satisfy the needs and tastes of two demanding men, Frank Woolworth, the building’s owner and founder of the Woolworth’s five-and-dime store empire, and Lewis Pierson of The Irving National Bank, the building’s main tenant. The final result is a grand space divided into three main sections, an arcade at the eastern end, a marble staircase hall in the center, and a smaller hall west of the staircase. Each space has a unique ceiling design heavy with symbolism and features that go beyond the aesthetic.
1. The Words Around the Stained Glass Skylight of the Marble Hall
Photograph by Jochen Enderlin
Once you pass under the vaulted ceiling of the eastern entrance, you enter the lobby of what was once The Irving National Bank (the bank later moved to One Wall Street, now also being converted into condominiums). The grand marble staircase at the center led straight into the mezzanine level offices of the bank. Looming above the staircase is a giant stained-glass skylight which, like the rest of the building, is filled with nods to commerce and Frank Woolworth. The skylight is ringed with the names of great commercial nations (Spain, China, Japan, Russia, Italy, German Empire, Austria, Argentina, Brazil, France, United States and Great Britain) and “W’s” for Woolworth. Also inscribed in the window are the years 1879 and 1913 which correspond to the founding of the Woolworth Company and the completion the Woolworth Building. The glass skylight is framed with “a decorative and deeply coffered ceiling gilded with a blue-green background, adorned at the edges with small polychromed grotesque figures.”
The Irving National Bank was the Woolworth Building’s anchor tenant. It occupied third, fourth and fifth floor office spaces as well as a “fortress-like vault” in the basement which contained more than 5,000 safe deposit boxes.
The pleasure of seeing the inside of the lobby or the basement vault is sadly reserved only for those who work in the building, as it has been closed to the public since 9/11. However, you can gaze upon all the wonderful features of the Woolworth Building lobby, the lower level with the vault, and get an up-close look at the mosaic ceiling on Untapped Cities’ upcoming Special Access Tour.