Aug 7, 2014
10:57 AM
History

Great Granddaughter of Architect Cass Gilbert Leads Tours of Woolworth Building

Great Granddaughter of Architect Cass Gilbert Leads Tours of Woolworth Building

The lobby of the Woolworth Building as seen upon entrance.

Helen Post-Curry has been here hundreds of times but it never gets old. Standing in the glittering lobby of the Woolworth Building gazing at the Cathedral-like ceiling with her neck craned back, she is truly in awe as she leads Connecticut Magazine on a tour.

“Everyone who knows about the Woolworth Building loves it,” says Curry, who lives in New Canaan. “I think partly because it was the first really tall building and all of America was proud of it, and then because it is so beautiful. And finally, because of all of the wonderful stories connected with it.”

Admittedly, Post-Curry might be a little biased. Her great grandfather was Cass Gilbert, the architect who designed the 1913 building (and who purchased a summer home in Ridgefield in 1907 that is now the Keeler Tavern Museum). But you don’t have to be a relative of its creator to admire the iconic New York City skyscraper that was once the tallest in the world. The Woolworth Building is 60 stories and 792 feet high. It was surpassed in height in 1930 by 40 Wall Street and later that same year by the Chrysler Building. Still, the Woolworth Building has remained a striking fixture of the lower Manhattan skyline and a favorite of historic building enthusiasts. However, few who are not ardent architect buffs know much, if anything, about the building’s stunningly intricate lobby, which was also designed by Gilbert.

Post-Curry and her brother Chuck Post are on a mission to change that. Last year they organized a limited series of tours to commemorate the building’s 100th anniversary. These tours received such a positive response that they decided to continue offering tours on a regular basis through their website woolworthtours.com.

(Above: a portion of the lobby modeled after a Euorpean guildhall. Below: the portion of the lobby modeled after a cathederal)

The lobby has long been closed to the public because of security and traffic concerns, and is only open to visitors through these tours, which give those who do not work in the building a chance to take in the majesty of the lobby.

The building was dubbed the “Cathedral of Commerce” in 1916 by the Reverend S. Parkes Cadman (an influential clergyman and writer) and entering the lobby it’s easy to see what inspired the nickname. The pink-white marble walls and floor, mosaic ceilings, intricately carved figures and stained glass awe one with a sense of almost holy grandeur, which is very much by design says Post-Curry. The first part of the lobby was modeled on a cathedral, only in place of religious iconography, it is adorned with the symbols of commerce and labor (see commerce mural above). Another portion of the lobby is inspired by a medieval guildhall and creates an equal sense of grandeur.

The lobby is also home to the original elevator system (still in use today) that was revolutionary at the time of the building's construction—it was the first building where elevators didn’t stop at every floor (in a building of this size doing so would have caused huge delays). Instead, elevators were (and are) staggered, each one only goes to select floors.

Despite the technical and artistic achievements, there are signs throughout the lobby of both Woolworth and Gilbert’s subtle sense of humor. There are dozens of carved stone sculptures to be found on the wall—each one is different and many of them are comical caricatures including works of Gilbert with a model of the building (right), the building’s engineer Gunvald Aus taking a girder's measurements, and Woolworth counting nickels (below).

Gilbert was born in Ohio in 1859 but grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota. In St. Paul, Gilbert entered the field of architecture and gained national recognition after designing the Endicott Building in 1890. He relocated his architecture firm to New York City where he designed the United States Custom House, Broadway Chambers Building and West Street Building, all in lower Manhattan close to where the Woolworth Building now stands. These buildings impressed F.W. Woolworth and Gilbert was commissioned to build the Woolworth Building, which would serve as the corporate headquarters of the F.W. Woolworth Company (which pioneered the five-and-dime stores and ultimately became Foot Locker Inc.).

Construction of the Woolworth Buildling began in 1910 and was completed in a record-setting three-year period. For the building, caissons were lowered into some of the city’s deepest bedrock and it utilized the day’s most extensive portal arch wind bracing. Post-Curry says that because the structure was so tall, Woolworth and Gilbert had to assure potential tenants that it would be safe during a fire as many people still remembered the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire that killed 146 Manhattan garment workers in 1911. To that end, the building was made with fire-repellent materials and in the lobby there are several sculptures of salamanders (in legend salamanders are not harmed by fire and as such they were a symbol of fire safety).

Though best known for the Woolworth Building, Gilbert designed many other notable buildings including several in Connecticut, among them Waterbury City Hall, the Chase Headquarters Building and Union Station in New Haven.

Post-Curry never met her great grandfather but has a strong connection to his architecture and Connecticut is home to two of her favorite Gilbert creations.

“I have two favorite Cass buildings in Connecticut,” she explains. “The first will always be the Garden House at his country home in Ridgefield, now the Keeler Tavern Museum, because it is the place of my earliest childhood memories. The second is the Waterbury City Hall, because of its beauty and the extraordinary renovations that were recently undertaken to save it from the wrecking ball.”

An observation deck on the Woolworth Building’s 57th floor was a big tourist attraction until it was closed during World War II because it was feared that its views of the harbor posed a security threat. The observation deck never reopened and is not part of the tour because the top 30 floors have been sold separately from the rest of the building and are being turned into super high-end condos. Current plans call for the building’s top nine floors to consist of one mammoth penthouse that will be 8,975 square feet and sell for a record-setting $110 million.

Post-Curry says ultimately the conversion to condos of the top 30 floors will be good for the building’s enduring legacy.

“I think all the publicity about the high asking price for the penthouse has only served to raise the building's profile and in the long run, that is a good thing,” she says.

Asked for her favorite feature of the Woolworth Building, she replies, “Hard to say because there is so much to love about the Woolworth Building, but if pressed, I would have to say its sense of humor, because that is so rare.”

The Woolworth Building tours are given by architecture historians. There are 30, 60 and 90-minute tours which are $15, $30, and $45 respectively. For more information visit: woolworthtours.com.

Contact me by email eofgang@connecticutmag.com and follow me on Twitter, and connect with Connecticut Magazine on Twitter, on Facebook and Google +

 

Great Granddaughter of Architect Cass Gilbert Leads Tours of Woolworth Building

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