After being closed more than a decade, the Woolworth Building lobby is open once again to visitors. I lead a 90-minute tour which includes a detailed look at the building’s unmatched polychromatic terra-cotta exterior, and an in-depth exploration of the lobby and its wealth of ornament, including hidden corners and staircases — plus a special visit to the mezzanine level for an up-close view of its extraordinary mosaic ceiling.
My connection to the Woolworth Building and its lobby goes back to my time at the New York Landmarks Commission in the 1980s and ’90s, when the LPC offices were located at 20 Vesey Street and then 225 Broadway. The nearby IRT station at Park Place included an exit (long since closed) that led up into the Woolworth Building lobby, and many of us who came via the IRT made a point of starting each morning with a walk through that glorious space. What a pleasure, then, to be assigned the task – in 1983, just 30 years ago – of preparing the official LPC designation reports on the Woolworth Building and its lobby (follow the links to read the reports). Later on, in the mid-1990s, it was my privilege to write the text for the 45 “Heritage Trails Site Markers” in front of many Downtown buildings – including the site marker for the Woolworth Building still standing right outside the Broadway entrance. And in October 1998 – 15 years ago – I wrote the text for the “Downtown Open House” self-guided tour booklet devoted to Cass Gilbert’s downtown buildings. From the entry for the Woolworth Building:
“Walk through the grand Tudor-arched entrance ringed with ornamental figures and enter the brilliantly gleaming splendor of the building once dubbed the “Cathedral of Commerce.” Gilbert adapted his concept of a grand public space to the private-public space of a skyscraper lobby. This particular lobby served two institutions, Woolworth’s company and the Irving Bank (no longer there). You are standing in Woolworth’s half, and there is no denying its ecclesiastical overtones. Shaped like a Latin cross, a standard plan for Christian churches, it is organized as a grand, two-story barrel-vaulted nave crossed by a shorter transept, with a domed crossing rising into the ceiling covered in mosaics.
As in his grandest public works, in Woolworth’s interior Gilbert united architecture, painting and sculpture. Take in all the voluptuous detail – the marble and mosaics, the bronze filigree, the sculpted relief, the gorgeous Gothic mailboxes. Step back under the transept-mezzanine to your left and look up to the other side: what looks like a religious altarpiece in fact bears a personification of ‘Labor,’ by artist Paul Jennewein. From the opposite direction, you can see a matching representation of ‘Commerce.’
Walk back through the lobby towards the grand staircase, centerpiece of the Marble Hall, Irving Bank’s territory. This rectangular space suggests a medieval guild hall. The flat ceiling, beautifully executed in glass, is inscribed with the names of history’s great commercial nations.
Climb to the top of the staircase and turn towards the lobby. The Woolworth building, like all the world’s tallest, once had an observatory from which visitors could take in the splendid view. It closed long ago, as higher observatories opened, but the view in the lobby you are enjoying right now remains among the most splendid the city knows.”
The lobby tour takes in all of the above, plus the famous grotesques caricaturing Woolworth, Gilbert, and many others associated with the enterprise. If you’ve never been inside this lobby – and even if you have – don’t miss this opportunity!