documenting the woolworth building inside and out

this month marks the second trip i’ve taken to new york to document american architecture, and the cross-over of preservation happening in the two cities. this summer i pursued a fragment of the historic gage building (1899) being replicated in buffalo at the boston valley terra cotta company, and saw they were simultaneously working on fragments of the woolworth building. i was excited to see pallets of terra cotta at their plant, but was unable to connect it to its living architecture before returning to chicago (where i had to finalize projects at the gage building and congress theater). over the course of several days, i anticipate things will come full circle as i visit the woolworth building and other significant structures in manhattan. my initial motive for making the trip was to see extra elevator ironwork that would not be used on the upper floors of the woolworth, and consider acquiring a piece for the bldg. 51 museum. since i will have access to the building, however, i now hope to document the woolworth extensively, and follow up on progress made with the renovated pieces from boston valley terra cotta company.

the woolworth is a neo-gothic skyscraper designed by cass gilbert in the early 1910’s as corporate headquarters for one of the original five and dime stores, f.w. woolworth company. the 57-story “cathedral of commerce” remained the tallest building in the world until 1930 (when the chrysler building was constructed). outside the competition for airspace, the building’s merit is in its decorative façade and luxurious light-filled interiors. white or limestone-colored terra cotta panels are anchored to the façade of the steel structure, while visitors are immediately greeted in the lobby by gold ceilings, mosaics and sculptures that illustrate woolworth’s vision. the building also innovated exterior lighting and high-speed electric elevators for the many tenants who occupied the building (woolworth only occupied two floors).

ceremonial booklet courtesy of the bldg. 51 museum.

while in new york city, i also anticipate paying a visit to the only extant building by louis sullivan’s mentor, architect john edelmann. the decker building was constructed in 1892 in the heart of union square, replacing leopold eidlitz’ colorful four-story iteration built on the same lot just after the civil war (23 years earlier). edelmann’s replacement retained a mixed style on the façade, and included islamic motifs to boot. the ornate structure outstripped its predecessor by a startling seven additional stories (while remaining a narrow 30 feet wide), and was topped with a tiled roof and domed minaret that, at the time, set it apart further from its neighbors. fluid terra cotta forms adorn the limestone and brick, surrounding balconies and arched windows that evoke moorish and venetian influences. the decker piano company commissioned the building, and originally occupied the first two floors as a showroom for their instruments, which were considered among the best in the country. re-designing the building, with its inflated height and grandeur, reflected the company’s rising success (though the death of john jacob decker spelled the business’ end by turn of the century). the architectural firm responsible for the building moved its offices to the uppermost floor, while the middle floors were leased out to other prominent companies (including, over the early years, a newspaper, silversmiths, and an ad agency). the decker is also well-known as the home of andy warhol’s “factory” in the late 1960’s. even with its impressive history, the structure sat vacant for many years until it was renovated in 1995 as an apartment building.

john edelmann was one of the most successful commercial architects in new york city during the late 19th century, and an outspoken anarchist who ran in the circles of emma goldman and other socialists. louis sullivan clearly credits edelmann as an inspiration and a mentor. his often quoted maxim “form follows function” was in fact an extension of edelmann’s working concept of “suppressed function” in architecture. perhaps more importantly he introduced sullivan to dankmar adler while at work in chicago (as a draftsman for adler and william lebaron jenney). edelmann’s design-work is visible in the decker building alone, but his politics and professional connections clearly compose part of his legacy, not least of all in catalyzing sullivan’s most successful years of work. edelman died in 1900, just as sullivan would have completed the gage buildings in chicago, and before a neighboring structure would climb five stories above the decker building.

the following image gallery contains over 60 images of the woolworth building's elaborate exterior glazed terra cotta (primarily cream, with polychrome accents) executed by the atlantic terra cotta company.   


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