The Hidden History of the Woolworth Building

woolworth building

The iconic Woolworth Building is known as one of New York City’s most elegant and historic skyscrapers, but did you know that it also was the tallest building in the world when completed? Or that it once housed the headquarters of one of the country’s largest and most influential retail companies? Or that President Woodrow Wilson turned on its lights all the way from Washington, D.C.? Indeed, the storied Woolworth Building has quite a history to it that most people don’t even realize! While most New Yorkers and tourists know it as one of Downtown Manhattan’s most beautiful skyscrapers, the tower is much more than that. Here’s a quick look at the hidden history of the Woolworth Building in New York City.

The building was commissioned in 1910 to serve as the new headquarters for the F.W. Woolworth Company, one of America’s largest and most innovative retail companies at the time and one of the original “five and dime” stores in the country. Originally intended to be 420 feet tall, it was later redesigned to be 792 feet tall, making it the tallest building in the world at the time. Designed by famed architect Cass Gilbert, the tower was noted for its ornate Neo-Gothic architecture and was modeled after the medieval cathedrals of Europe, giving rise to its nickname the “Cathedral of Commerce.”

The new building was completed in 1912 and officially opened on April 24, 1913. Notably, President Woodrow Wilson turned the building’s lights on all the way from Washington, D.C. with the simple push of a button. The tower reigned as the tallest building in the world upon its completion, dethroning the Metlife Tower also in New York City. It held the title of the world’s tallest building until 1930 when it was surpassed by the nearby 40 Wall Street.

The tower soon became one of New York City’s best-known skyscrapers and was acclaimed for its rich Gothic Revival architecture. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and official New York City Landmark in 1983, attesting its historical and architectural importance. The tower’s striking lobby was once a top tourist attraction but later closed to the public in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks for security concerns. More recently, however, public tours of the lobby have made it accessible once again. The building was sold to the Witkoff Group in 1998 and is currently undergoing a renovation to replace its top floor offices with luxury residences.

Though no longer the tallest building in the world, let alone New York City, the celebrated Woolworth Building remains one of the country’s most acclaimed skyscrapers. It’s rich history and stunning Neo-Gothic architecture make it one of the most iconic skyscrapers in the United States to this day.