2. The Vaulted Mosaic Ceiling of the Arcade

Photograph by Jochen Enderlin

The arcade on the east side of the lobby, with a main entrance on Broadway and alternate entrances at Park Place and Barclay Street, is topped with a two-story high barrel vaulted ceiling covered in shimmering glass mosaic tiles. This dramatic entrance gives one the feeling of entering a house of worship and earned the building the titles of “The Cathedral of Commerce.” Surprisingly, Gilbert claimed to draw his inspiration not from great Gothic cathedrals, but from civic buildings. Woolworth felt that the skyward stretching aesthetic of the Gothic style was fitting for a skyscraper, and at the time of its completion in 1913, the Woolworth Building was the tallest in the world. He thought of his building as a monument for public view and spared no expense in trying to impress.

The mosaic work of the ceiling was done by the prominent twentieth century decorating firm of Heineicke and Bowen. The design of floral patterns and exotic birds in colors of blue, green, gold and red are Byzantine in style and reminiscent of early Christian churches found in Italy. In a 1921 brochure for the building, the ceiling is described as

“a flood of dazzling jewels glittering in the sunlight – emeralds, rubies, sapphires, diamonds – a riot of harmonious colors, all spread out in a golden setting, and arranged in exquisite design. The whole effect is one of grandeur with which the arcade of no other building in the world may be compared.”

The glittering effect of the ceiling is due to up-lighting hidden within the “lace-like marble cornice at the springing of the arches.” In the galleries at the northern and southern ends of the arcade’s cross-sections are two murals that depict the allegorical figures of “Commerce” and “Labor,” reinforcing the idea that in this building, its business that is sacred.

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