In 1979, when the Woolworth Building was a mere 66 years old—more than a decade younger than Rockefeller Center is now—I called it “the Mozart of skyscrapers” that “weds gothic ornament to exquisite massing and scale.” I don’t know that I got everything I wrote about right 37 years ago, but I do think that line did sum up what makes this building so extraordinary, which is its seemingly effortless lyricism. It is complex, but all that complexity is rendered into something that seems absolutely natural and easy and full of grace, and you have a sense of great depth coexisting with great pleasure. In the case of Mozart it is great depth amidst pleasurable and beautiful sound; in the case of Cass Gilbert the pleasure is visual, but the feeling is the same—of something with an absolute rightness to it, of something that brings joy and at the same time possesses the resonance of something profound.
When I wrote about it in 1979, I observed that the Woolworth Building was the happiest of stories: a building that was built as both a working office and a corporate and civic symbol, paid for with $13-million in cash by its owner, whose company still occupied it. Never a mortgage, never a new owner, the building always maintained with care and respect. Well, all of that is different now, since the Woolworth Corporation is no more, the building has changed hands and even changed function, and it is encumbered by plenty of financing. The happy story has had some setbacks.
But none of them impact on its architecture, thankfully, or on its status as one of the world’s truly great skyscrapers, which is undiminished even as the building has gone from being the world’s tallest to not being in the top ten tallest buildings, or anywhere near it. The architectural lessons this building offers remain powerful. I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that this great skyscraper was designed by an architect who was not, in general, a great fan of the genre of tall towers, which he saw primarily as business propositions. A skyscraper, Cass Gilbert once said, “is a machine for making the land pay.” Well, yes, it most certainly is, but Gilbert proved that it could also be so much more than that—that it could be an object of great beauty, a civic as well as a corporate symbol, and a source of inspiration and joy.
To me what is most fascinating about the architecture of this great building is how brilliantly Gilbert managed to simultaneously look backward toward Gothic architecture and forward toward modernity. He was a committed historicist who was most comfortable working in the Beaux-Arts style, and never viewed himself as a modernist. Yet the Woolworth Building was much more than just a modern building clothed in Gothic garb. There is something about it that is modern through and through, because Gilbert so brilliantly re-invented Gothic as a source of skyscraper design. Louis Sullivan famously said that a skyscraper had to be “tall, every inch of it tall,” arguing that this new building form needed a new kind of architecture that would express height. But nobody has ever expressed height better than Cass Gilbert did at the Woolworth Building, where you feel at every moment a sense of soaring, of rushing upwards, of reaching to the sky, even as you also feel a connection to the life and culture of the city from which this object springs.
Woolworth was far from the first commercial skyscraper in the city; this building form was more than a quarter century old when the Woolworth Building went up, and New Yorkers were becoming accustomed to the fact that business buildings and not church steeples would be the tallest things in the city, the defining elements of the skyline. The slogan “Cathedral of Commerce” that was applied to the building was, in part, an attempt to sugar coat this transformation, as if to say that while churches no longer held sway over the skyline as they once did, this building represented the same heavenly aspirations. I’ve always thought that was more than a little disingenuous, and that other than its alliteration, this slogan had little to recommend it. And it was misleading in other ways, too, since Gilbert chose Gothic not for any religious associations but because Gothic emphasizes the vertical to start with, and Gothic details could form the picturesque composition Gilbert wanted. It was a picturesque quality, ease and beauty of massing, that Gilbert was after. And so the tower rises naturally from a large base that anchors the building to the street, and it culminates in a crown that is perfectly proportioned to the rest of the building. I’ve always thought that this was one building in which fancifulness and inventiveness were in perfect balance with discipline and control; there is a sense of the imagination soaring, yet none of it ever becomes frivolous. How many other buildings could we look at for a hundred years and never grow tired of, only want to see more and more?
New York, by and large, is a city of average buildings that come together to make an extraordinary whole. That is how it should be: in a city, the whole should always be more than the sum of the parts. Yet no city is worth living in if at least some of the parts aren’t amazing, breathtaking things in themselves—exclamation points on the cityscape, moments of poetry amid the prose. There are a handful of places in New York that make your heart stop: the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park, Grand Central Terminal, the New York Public Library, the Seagram Building, the Chrysler Building. And high on that list is the Woolworth Building, which I think is the first skyscraper New Yorkers truly gave their hearts to. And we can say for sure that, after a hundred years, we are all as much in love with it as ever.