Accounting for the Strange Faces That Adorn the Woolworth Building (And Other Fun Facts)

Posted On Thu, October 23, 2014 By

Posted On Thu, October 23, 2014 By In Features, Financial District, History

The 101-year old Woolworth Building has been in the news quite a bit lately, especially since it was first announced that the top 30 floors would be turned into 34 apartments; one of which is a nine-story penthouse is expected to hit the market for a record $110 million. But the Woolworth has long been at the center of New York life with its storied past and lofty 792-foot height.

It cost $13.5 million to erect the tower in 1913, and the building was the world’s tallest when it first debuted. Though a number—50 to be exact—have surpassed it in height, the Woolworth Building has remained one of the world’s most admired for its detailed and compelling ornamentation. Like other prestigious companies of its time, Frank W. Woolworth wanted something unforgettable and the building’s architect, Cass Gilbert, certainly delivered. The tower is filled to the brim with mosaics, stained-glass, golden embellishments and of course tons of those carved faces and figures.

A 2009 photo series by Carol M. Highsmith documents all the strange faces lurking throughout the building. Though they may seem somewhat otherworldly and mysterious, many of these faces are of the real workers who toiled on the building and even include one of the architect and Frank W. Woolworth himself; while others represent, from south to north, the four continents. See more photos interspersed with some fun and amazing facts about the Woolworth Building ahead!

woolworth building cass gilbertA sculpture of architect Cass Gilbert holding a model of the Woolworth Building. The statue is located in the lobby of the building.

Though the building embodies a Gothic expression, Gilbert was annoyed with the fact that it was referred to as the “Cathedral of Commerce”. He was noted saying that although it incorporated such decorative flair, that it was a great civic tower meant to inspire upward movement and that in its structural characteristics it was a new typology in itself with no real precedent.

The building was well received by both the public and critics when opened, with Montgomery Schuler, the most eminent architecture critic of the time, penning the 56-page brochure on the building. “How satisfactory and eye-filling it is…” he wrote, calling it also “gracious”, “commanding” and “and an ornament of our city and a vindication of our artistic sensibilities”.

It also won the hearts of architecture enthusiasts across the globe, and the New York Times quoted Japanese architect Matsunosuke Moriyama, as saying that if the US were to build more skyscrapers like it, that “the world’s opinion of American architecture will be entirely different from now.”

woolworth building cass gilbert, woolworth building sculpturesF.W. Woolworth counting nickels.

10 Other Fun Facts:

1. When the building opened on April 24, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson turned the lights on by way of a button in Washington, D.C. at 7:29 PM. 900 guests invited by Woolworth partied in the building that night.

2. In 1924, a small replica of the building, standing at one-third its height was built in Memphis, Tennessee.

3. There’s an abandoned pool and hot tub in the basement, in addition to a defunct water tank that was once used to siphon out water when it flooded.

cass gilbert sculpture, cass gilbert woolworth building, cass gilbert sculptures, woolworth building sculptures, faces of the woolworth buildingEngineer Gunvald Aus taking a girder’s measurements

4. There are doors in the basement that once led directly into the subway.

5. In the 1940s, part of the building housed the Manhattan project headquarters. The project gave way to the world’s first atomic bomb, and at the Woolworth Building engineers worked on uranium enrichment inside.

6. The building’s facade was restored between 1977 and 1981 and much of the terra-cotta was replaced with concrete and Gothic ornament was removed. Today these decorative pieces sit piled up in the basement.

woolworth building cass gilbert

7. Woolworth paid $13.5 million cash to have the tower erected.

8. The building was owned by the Woolworth company for 85 years until 1998 when it was sold it to the Witkoff Group for $155 million.

cass gilbert sculpture, cass gilbert woolworth building, cass gilbert sculptures, woolworth building sculptures, faces of the woolworth building

9. Until recently, the Woolworth Company’s (who became the Venator Group) only presence in the building was through a Foot Locker store—the successor to the Woolworth Company.

10. It has been a National Historic Landmark since 1966, and a New York City landmark since 1983. Though no longer the tallest in the world, it’s still sitting pretty as one of the 20 tallest in the city.

a-cass-gilbert-sculpture wool worth building 16

If you’d like to tour the building, the Woolworth Tours provides 30 to 60 minute excursions. Our friends over at Untapped Cities also frequently lead visits throughout the building with a historian in tow. Their next event will be held on November 8th at noon. Tickets are just $45.

Until then, see more photos of the curious faces in our gallery below.

woolworth building interiorImage © John de Guzman

All images via the Library of Congress unless otherwise noted. Source: Historic information via the Woolworth Building’s New York City Landmarks application, 1983

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