The Story of Woolworth's 'Cathedral,' Built by Nickels and Dimes

Left: A plaque in the Woolworth Building lobby portrays the man who paid for his building cash, counting out nickels and dimes. Right: Viewed from the west in a 1928 photo, the building dwarfed its neighbors including the domed New York World Building, the Tribune Building next to it, and the twin-topped Park Row Building.

Jan. 30, 2021

With the title “Tallest Building in the World” changing hands so often in recent decades, it may be hard to realize that in Lower Manhattan the honor was held for an astonishing 18 years—from 1913 to 1931—by the Woolworth Building. 

A neo-Gothic masterpiece on Broadway between Barclay Street and Park Place designed by the architect Cass Gilbert, it was above all a monument to the man who commissioned it, Frank W. Woolworth, and to the “5 and 10 cents store” empire that Woolworth had created. 

Although he ended up a multimillionaire, Woolworth (1852-1919) hardly seemed the promising businessman in his early years. A farm boy from upstate New York, he had decided on a mercantile career but proved quite inept at it, job after job failing to pan out. He was no good at selling. 

In 1875 a “99-cent store” opened in Watertown, NY, and did well; this suggested to Woolworth that the idea of offering a large number of items at a low fixed price had great potential. But when the store’s owner hired Woolworth to work in a branch that offered the same bargains, he was such a poor salesman that his salary was cut and he quit. 

In 1878 he heard of a store that had set up a counter offering goods for 5 cents apiece and he persuaded his former Watertown employer to try it. The trial was a huge success and Woolworth was convinced he was onto something. 

But when he obtained backing to open a 5-cent store in Utica, it failed. By now he was 27 years old, with nothing to show for himself. 

He did not give up, however. For one thing, he became convinced that location was everything: Utica had just been the wrong place. He also sensed that offering only 5-cent items implied cheapness. Something more was needed. 

When a friend suggested he might do well in Lancaster, PA, he visited the town and agreed it was promising. 

He opened his new store there on June 21, 1879, with a sign on the building that advertised “Woolworth’s 5 and 10 cent store,” and success was immediate. 

He had his formula. 

As his business began to grow, Woolworth took on friends whom he encouraged to open new stores. Now he improved on his formula. He would hire only men whom he trusted completely, he would open stores only after carefully scouting the locations, and he would make absolutely sure the goods he sold were not shoddy. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, the businesses multiplied steadily. Soon his partners were leaving to start “5 and 10” chains of their own, which he freely permitted. 

In 1888 Woolworth moved his headquarters to New York City, and by 1901 he had a mansion on Fifth Avenue. In 1911 came the culminating stroke of genius. He invited the onetime partners who had set up rival chains to merge with him to create a single gigantic $65 million corporation, the F.W. Woolworth Company, and they agreed. The new colossus owned more than 600 stores in the U.S., Canada and England. 

Having reached the top, Woolworth decided to erect a splendid building that would not only advertise his business but also proclaim his prowess as a great merchant.

He had already purchased some property across from City Hall. For his designer he hired Cass Gilbert, the renowned architect of such impressive Downtown fixtures as the United States Custom House at the foot of Broadway and the gold-topped building at 90 West Street. 

In conferring with Gilbert, Woolworth made two preferences known: he wanted the structure to resemble the Gothic tower of London’s Houses of Parliament, and he wanted it to be tall—in fact, the tallest office building in the world.

Gilbert did not disappoint him. The completed edifice rose 60 stories—792 feet—from the sidewalk to the top and was clad in immaculate white terra cotta.

And it looked tall. 

As an architectural critic has written, Gilbert “initially conceived the [exterior’s] verticals as a modern treatment of his West Street Building elevations, but now he further refined them to take on a new structural prominence and visual sophistication. Rhythmic and syncopated, they were tense with energy.” Another writer observed that the facade “was so elaborately ornamented, so delicate and lacelike in effect, so studded with gargoyles, and so beautiful that it resembled a cathedral more than an office building.”

A prominent New York clergyman soon dubbed it “the Cathedral of Commerce” and the phrase has stuck with it ever since. 

The lobby was (and is) fully as impressive, its walls lined with marble quarried on a Greek island and its domed ceiling resplendent with glass mosaics. Woolworth’s private office on the 24th floor was a replica of a room in one of Napoleon’s palaces and even contained a clock that had belonged to the emperor. The building was the first to have its own power plant, and its elevators were the fastest in the world.

Perhaps the most unusual thing about the building, however, was that Woolworth paid its entire $13.5 million cost out of his own pocket, in cash. 

The building was formally opened on the evening of April 24, 1913, by President Woodrow Wilson, who pressed a button in his White House office that instantly illuminated the great Gothic tower on the New York skyline.

During the festivities there was one unscripted note. While the building was going up, Gilbert’s principal assistant, Thomas Johnson, had had the idea of installing carved caricatures of Woolworth and others in the lobby. The great man would not be told about them; they would be a surprise. 

Woolworth’s plaque showed him counting out nickels and dimes, Gilbert is portrayed holding a model of the building, and so forth. How would Woolworth react? Would he be offended? He was escorted to the lobby and shown what had been done. To the onlookers’ vast relief, he burst out laughing until he was almost in tears, and ordered that the plaques never be removed. 

And they have not.

This article first appeared in the May, 2004, print edition of The Tribeca Trib.