Inside The Woolworth Building

Because it is well documented elsewhere, I won’t go into the history of F.W. Woolworth, the Woolworth Building, or the stores to which the old man lent his name. For that, I urge you to check out the fantastic Woolworth Building episode of the Bowery Boys podcast. With that history thusly filed away, we can pick up our merry frolic through one of the city’s most iconic yet rarely seen first skyscraper. I say rarely seen because although you can marvel at the impressive exterior, the historic neo-Gothic lobby is off-limits to tourists, gawkers, amateur historians, and anyone who doesn’t work at a company housed in the building. It might be possible to get a glimpse if you wander in just after regular business hours and are really kind to the guard at the front desk, but barring that gamble on the mercy of strangers, you will just have to get a job at one of the many businesses that call the impressive building home. But even if you do work in the building, there are still hidden niches and off-limit secrets to which you don’t get access.

So it was with considerable excitement that I learned that we were going to get a special-access tour of not just the phenomenal lobby but also some of the secrets tucked deep within the bowels of the structure. This happened not because we are a well-respected source for fascinating film and travel information, but because Open House New York was offering the tour.

Obviously, any tour is going to start in the lobby, an opulent monument to neo-Gothic over indulgence as befits the lobby of a building conceived by a man who saw himself more or less as a modern-day pharaoh (so much so that he assumed he would never die, which is why he never prepared a will and his vast fortune was such a contentious legacy after his death). A combination of gothic, Arabian, Byzantine, and other styles that caught the attention of Woolworth and architect Cass Gilbert as they traveled around Europe, the lobby does its job. One instantly feels overwhelmed by the towering domes covered in azure and gold (actual gold), the massive marble stairway, the now opaque skylight, and the massive amount of terra-cotta sculpture. Gilbert, Woolworth himself, other notables in the construction of the building, and an assortment of grotesqueries and gargoyles peer at you as you wander slack-jawed through the deceptively small space that feels like a vast cavern thanks in large part to the high ceilings.

After marveling at the lobby for a spell and getting filled in on the history by Roy Suskin, the Woolworth-protective vice president of development at the Witkoff Group (the organization currently leading the renovation/restoration going on in the building), we descended deep into the sub-basements, through the even more rarely seen lower lobby, past pipe-filled machine rooms, and far below the sidewalks outside to have a look at the multi-purpose boiler room. There one gets a look at huge piles of office building and maintenance detritus, broken and abandoned old bits of the building itself, the massive stone and steel columns that shoulder the weight of the building, and an oddly out-of-place old wooden water tun. One expects to see those on the roofs of buildings, but thirty-five feet below the surface of the city?
Turns out that, during some water rationing back in the day, the building owners thought they might be able to circumvent restrictions by vacuuming up the ground water that seeped in, storing it in the tun, and using (or selling) it instead of relying on a municipal water supply. Unfortunately, no one bothered to taste the water first or else they would have known it was salty, foul tasting, and unpotable. The tun was drained, cleaned, and never used again thought it looks to be in pretty good shape. I suggested it be used as a mash tun for making whiskey, but I don’t know if they are going to take my advice.

Some of what is down there in the guts of the building is a remnant of Woolworth’s insistence that the building be entirely self-reliant and self-contained. Aside from its own doctors’ office and restaurants, the building had its own power generators and steam heat so they would never have to depend on (or more accurately, pay for) city power. Although the lobby is far and away and deservedly so the highlight, I love seeing the dirty, industrial underbelly of things. There’s nothing pretty in the underbelly of the Woolworth Building, but if you want to see what it takes to keep a building like this functioning, it happens down among the multi-colored pipes, massive load-bearing columns, and piles of janitors’ mops.

We ascended a little to see the next secret location: the old swimming pool. In line with Woolworth’s vision of the building as its own contained world, there were facilities dedicated to the pursuit of physical culture — very popular at the time. Rumor has it that although the pool was ostensibly another of his money-making schemes to be rented out, Woolworth himself would use the pool to frolic with Ziegfeld girls. I don’t think there exists any confirmation of this, but I’m going to stick with the idea that I was skulking around in a place where once an American tycoon swam with a naked Lillian Lorraine. The pool was available for rent and use up until the 1990s, when it was shut down for a number of reasons. Chief among them was the fact that the sewer lines were too close and would back up into the pool if something went wrong. This could have been easily remedied by a bit of work but was deemed not worth it since there were other gyms around then and the Woolworth pool had earned a rep as a bit of a cruising ground on men’s night. After being drained, it was just an empty, open pit for years. It’s been sealed over, and the room looks like a construction site. The most remarkable thing in it now is the mirror that has “helter skelter” scrawled on it in ominous red spray paint (Scouting NY has a fantastic and more in-depth series on the pool and the building in general).

The final stop on our off-limits tour was the vault. In yet another effort to fill his overflowing coffers (Woolworth was so rich off his five and dime stores that he actually paid for the land and the construction of his building in cash), Woolworth figured if banks could run a safe deposit business, so could he. So a state of the art vault was constructed on one of the sub levels. It never really worked out as a business though, and after a while Woolworth wrote it off as a bust. Most of the deposit boxes were sold off to a bank. As for what the vault was used for after that, who knows? I have heard everything from temporary storage of art and relics to, well, that it just sat there empty and unused.

So ended our tour. I don’t know if it was once in a lifetime, but it was awfully close. Because it is a working office building, it remains one of the city’s most coveted but off-limits jewels, much like the Chrysler Building, citing everything from lobby crowding to post-9/11 security measures (which seems an unlikely cover, given the lax security, for the fact that they just don’t want you loitering in there). And even with our extended access tour, some things remained verboten. The old observation deck, for example, is not open to anyone but the construction crews turning it into luxury condos. Ah well, you can’t have everything, even if you are Mr. Woolworth. Despite his plans to live forever, he passed away in 1919. I’m surprised he wasn’t entombed in some grand mausoleum in the building that bears his name.

So is one of the city’s most notable treasures sealed away behind a “No Tourists Beyond This Point” sign on the sidewalk out front. But every now and then, someone convinces the secretive owners to open their doors just a little.

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