Woolworth Building lobby

Dubbed the “Cathedral of Commerce” when it debuted in 1913, the Woolworth Building represented an unprecedented feat of engineering and architectural prowess. Rising 792 feet, it was the tallest building in the world when it opened and boasted technology like electricity, steam-powered heating, and Otis elevators—rare at the time. It was commissioned by Frank W. Woolworth, a Gilded Age self-made tycoon who was born a farm boy in upstate New York and made a fortune by opening a chain of “five and dime” stores that catered to the middle class and revolutionized the way Americans shopped.

By the time Woolworth moved to New York City, he had almost 600 stores across the East Coast and Midwest. He hired Cass Gilbert to design his headquarters, instructing him to use the Gothic Revival style inspired by the Houses of Parliament in London, which he admired on a recent trip to Europe. Gilbert, who was experienced at designing buildings in the Beaux-Arts style popular during the Gilded Age, looked to the abbeys of Mont Saint Michel and Saint Ouen in France and the Victoria Tower in London for inspiration. Both the exterior and interior of the building are richly decorated with Gothic motifs and Byzantine-style mosaics.

1. Woolworth Building Superlatives—Fastest Elevators and Tallest Chimney

elevator at the Woolworth Building

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 were later erected in its place 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.