Cass Gilbert's Woolworth Building


Fast Facts on the Woolworth Building: 
Location: New York City
Architect: Cass Gilbert
Patron: F. W. Woolworth
Completion: 1913
Height: 792 feet
Tallest Building in the World from 1913-1930

On April 24, 1913, in what one observer called “the premier publicity stunt of this or any other day,” US President Woodrow Wilson pushed a button on his desk in the White House and caused the recently completed Woolworth Building on lower Broadway in Manhattan to be brilliantly illuminated. The sight astonished crowds in City Hall Park below, as well as thousands who watched from the New Jersey side of the Hudson River and even on boats in New York Harbor and farther out to sea.[1] Thus was inaugurated one of the canonical monuments in New York City, the United States, and the history of the skyscraper.
Architect Cass Gilbert was already well established professionally when he received the commission from dime-store magnate F. W. Woolworth to design his signature Manhattan tower. An Ohio native, Gilbert was raised primarily in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His architectural education began in the office of a Saint Paul practitioner and continued at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied for a year under William Robert Ware. The neoclassical training he received under Ware was complemented by a stint in the New York firm of McKim, Mead, and White, where he assisted the legendary Stanford White. Gilbert returned to the Midwest and started his own firm in Saint Paul in 1883. He gained a great deal of national attention from the 1898 design of the Minnesota state capitol, and on the strength of that, relocated his firm’s main office to New York City the following year. Gilbert’s design for the monumental beaux-arts U.S. Custom House at the foot of Manhattan solidified his professional standing with its completion in 1907.[2] From then on, Gilbert operated an active national firm that executed a variety of public and private commissions. His designs demonstrated his knowledge of art and architecture by incorporating a wide range of historical stylistic references. At the time of his death, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York lamented the loss of a valued trustee and praised his “spacious mind.”[3]
When it was completed, the Woolworth Building received vast international press coverage and attracted the interest of artists working in a variety of mediums, who perceived in the building the dynamism of the modern city. The painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand, for example, incorporated the Woolworth Building into their film Manhatta (1921), a paean to the burgeoning commercial city. Perhaps the artist who most persistently and enthusiastically depicted the building was John Marin. He provided a published explanation of the New York watercolors and oils exhibited at the Photo-Secession’s gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue in 1913, and there asked rhetorically, by way of explaining his animated pictures of the city’s monuments, “Are the buildings themselves dead?” Clearly not: “Thus the whole city is alive; buildings, people, all are alive; and the more they move me the more I feel them to be alive.”[4] The soaring height of the Woolworth Building, as well as its intricate Gothic-inspired terra-cotta exterior, made Marin and others feel that it was leaping into the sky.
Despite the early acclaim for the building, Gilbert’s Gothicizing approach lost its appeal with the subsequent development of the modernist skyscraper. Indeed, the architect was generally disparaged, as were many others of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for having purportedly clung to outworn historical formulae and traditions. Nevertheless, the impact of postmodernism in the 1970s and ’80s led to a new appreciation for Gilbert’s work.[5] With the Woolworth Building and the Custom House, among other works, Gilbert contributed to the modernization of lower Manhattan in the early decades of the twentieth century.
However much the Gothic imagery of the Woolworth Building may have been anathema to modernists, there was no doubt that Gilbert’s design satisfied the complex requirements of an office tower that housed many workers in addition to a bank and recreation area (including a basement-level swimming pool). Furthermore, the Woolworth Building was served by the mechanical systems that in fact made the skyscraper, as a building type, possible, such as elevators, electricity, plumbing, and more. The complexity of the tower, in turn, demanded thousands of drawings of different kinds. As Mary Beth Betts has noted, Gilbert’s office produced thirty alternative plans for the Woolworth Building, as well as a number of perspective sketches in which he toyed with different approaches to the composition and detailing. Once the basic approach was settled upon, Gilbert maintained that the actual working drawings had been made in just eighty-six days.[6] This was an especially significant feat, given the high quality of working drawings for which the architect was known. Large collections of them from Gilbert’s office—sketches, working drawings, and presentation drawings—are housed at the New-York Historical Society and the Library of Congress; they have supported the spate of publications on the building and its architect over the past fifteen years or so.[7]
Coinciding with the celebration of the Woolworth Building’s centennial in 2013 was the discovery of a previously unknown cache of more than 150 working drawings produced by Gilbert’s office. Acquired by the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery through a partial gift from architects Gwen and Don Reiman, the drawings include early site plans, sections, elevations, details, and drawings for the mechanical systems. Since many of the drawings, mostly pen and ink on tracing paper, linen, or paper, frequently bear later annotations such as “superseded,” they illustrate the evolution of a complex design over the course of the several years during which the building was under construction. They show not just the mind of an accomplished architect at work, but also the legions of little-known draftsmen and builders who contributed to the making of a national icon. They also confirm what the Brickbuilder claimed in 1914, that “Mr. Gilbert’s office has always turned out extremely well finished working drawings, because [he] himself [is] a draftsman of superior grade and likes and appreciates technically good drawings.”[8]
[1] Gail Fenske, “Medievalism, Mysticism, and Modernity in Early Twentieth-Century New York: Cass Gilbert’s ‘Skyscraper Gothic,’” in Skyscraper Gothic: Medieval Style and Modernist Buildings, ed. Kevin D. Murphy and Lisa Reilly (University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville, 2017), p. 75.
[2] Geofrey Blodgett, “Cass Gilbert, Architect: Conservative at Bay,” Journal of American History, vol. 72, no. 3 (December 1985), pp. 615–619.
[3] “Cass Gilbert: In Memoriam,” Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, vol. 29, no. 6 (1934), p. 90.
[4] John Marin, quoted in “Society News,” American Photography, vol. 7, no. 4 (April 1913), p. 239.
[5] Sharon Irish, “Cass Gilbert in Practice, 1882–1934,” in Inventing the Skyline: The Architecture of Cass Gilbert, ed. Margaret Heilbrun (Columbia University Press, New York, 2000), p. 28.
[6] Mary Beth Betts, “From Sketch to Architecture: Drawings in the Cass Gilbert Office,” ibid., pp. 57–66.
[7] Most notably, Gail Fenske, The Skyscraper and the City: The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2008).
[8] “Monographs on Architectural Renderers: 5. The Work of Thomas R. Johnson,” Brickbuilder, vol. 23 (1914), pp. 110, 112, quoted in Betts, “From Sketch to Architecture,” p. 66.

Adapted from Kevin D. Murphy, "The Woolworth Building on the Drafting Board." The Magazine Antiques (January/February 2018), pp. 68-70.

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