Jagged Heart

I would give the greatest sunset in the world for one sight of New York’s skyline. Particularly when one can’t see the details. Just the shapes. The shapes and the thought that made them. The sky over New York and the will of man made visible…When I see the city from my window – no, I don’t feel how small I am – but I feel that if a war came to threaten this, I would throw myself into space, over the city, and protect these buildings with my body.
– Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

When pressed, New Yorkers will tell you they love the skyline, as if they cannot choose a most-beloved amongst their children.  But I will tell you that every New Yorker has a building they love best.  For me, it is not the Chrysler, or the Lipstick, or the Pan Am/Met Life (in fact, I resent that one, deeply).  My life and career in New York began downtown, and so I love the Woolworth Building.

kveus5693s(Source: A View on Cities)

On April 24, 1913, lit by thousands of little lights, the building opened.  Its construction had been paid for in cash by the building’s owner, Frank Woolworth, of the department store family. The skyscraper’s massive limestone facade towered over lower Manhattan, and still does to this day. It is iconic; imposing; unintimidated by the its glossy, glassy peers.  Its icon status is not even dwarfed by the Gehry — just a stone’s throw and skip across Broadway.

100 years after its opening, the Woolworth Building still ranks as one of the 50 tallest buildings in the US, and one of the 20 tallest buildings in New York.

The building was designed by a man who was perhaps the first “star-chitect.”  An early proponent of skyscrapers, Cass Gilbert was approached in 1910 by Frank Woolworth to design “the tallest building in the world.”

Gilbert was a midwesterner.  It was his work on the Minnesota State Capitol that gave him national recognition.  However, he was not an architect well-versed in skyscraping when he was given the Woolworth project.  He was mostly, from what I can tell, an intrepid admirer.


(Source: Minnesota Historical Society)

Now is the time when I must admit that my knowledge of architecture is limited.  The Woolworth Building is constructed in neo-gothic style, which is evinced by the bits on the top of the building that look vaguely castle-or-cathedral-like, a style that was popular in its time.  But style was in flux in 1913.  And the building’s clean lines earned the admiration of an emerging modernist movement too.

The inside of the building is truly stunning as well — the lobby rises into vaulted, domed ceilings.  Many of the fixtures inside were once terra cotta, but were replaced by cast-stone in a restoration in the 1970s.  (I think this was because of durability, but I can’t find a source to confirm).  The ceiling domes are adorned with gold-leafed mosaic tiles, and the walls are…paneled…in a striking marble.

Since September 11, 2001, much of the lobby is off-limits to visitors — only tenants of the building have access.  But Tribeca Citizen has some beautiful photos of a tour of the interior, and you can still sneak a peak when walking down Broadway.

Over the years, the building’s ownership has changed hands.  The Woolworth Company went out of business in the late 1990s, and sold its beautiful home.  A variety of schools and colleges have had (and still have) an academic presence in the building — NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies is one.  And last year, the New York Times reported that the top floors of the building will be remade into luxury apartments.

I suppose, then, the lasting, beautiful, versatile thing about the building is that over its 100 years, it has grown and changed with the times.  It is a snapshot of its moment in history, but it has been perfectly suited to change, too.

Cass Gilbert, for his part, was later quoted as regretting taking the Woolworth assignment — fearing that it would be seen as his only major accomplishment.  But he went on to build a great many beautiful and famous things — my second-favourite of his buildings being the last one he ever designed.  You see, he also designed the US Supreme Court building.  He passed away before it was completed, but the project was seen-through by his son.

It is funny, you know.  I was in Shanghai a few years back, in the old HSBC Building on the Bund, where they have these stunning mosaics of some great cities around the world.  And the building’s tour guide pointed to the New York mosaic and asked the group to identify the buildings in the tile.

Oh, I said, That’s the Woolworth Building.

He looked at me slack-jawed.  No one has ever known that before.  At least, until I’ve told them.

I wanted to tell him that we New Yorkers carry our hearts with us wherever we go, but I didn’t.  We simply do.

And that was the thing.  When I was a law student just down the street from the Supreme Court, I didn’t know that the man who built the building that would be central to my life as a lawyer — Equal Justice Under Law — had also build the building that would be central to my life as a New Yorker.

I have found, over the past few years, that buildings are just boxes to put our hearts.  But here in New York, our hearts are very big, and bright, and they cannot be contained by the changing of owners, or the passing of time.  And our hearts are shaped by the people who built this city; who built these beautiful boxes; who gave us this sense of permanence and change and smallness and bigness and our beautiful, jagged, beating skyline.

(Sources: Wikipedia; New York Historical Society; Minnesota Historical Society; Skyscraper Museum – check out their virtual exhibition for the centennial; Fordham University Modern History Sourcebook; my own years of living in Tribeca)

(Throughout the month of June, I’ll be writing a series of New York-related posts, and/or inviting some friends to guest post about their New York experiences, to celebrate my eight years in New York City.)

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