A Memory of the Woolworth Building

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Today is the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Woolworth Building, which from 1913 through 1930 was the tallest building in the world.

Yes, but is there a vaudeville angle? Dear friends, there’s always a vaudeville angle. Did you know that F.W. Woolworth experimented in vaud, building a theatre over one of his Five and Ten Cent stores in Lancaster, Pennsylvania? I visited Woolworth’s mausoleum at Woodlawn Cemetery in 2015:

As for the Woolworth Building itself, there’s no vaudeville angle but there’s a me angle.  And it’s really not anything more than a scrap of memory, a connection.

Sometime in 2001, I was working at the New-York Historical Society in the fundraising department (I had not yet switched to public relations). At the time we had an exhibition up about the work of Cass Gilbert, architect of the Woolworth Building. And in that capacity I had the rare privilege to go somewhere few people have gone — the top of the Woolworth Building. I only recall a few of us on the junket: myself, a pair of elderly, eccentric philanthropists, a lady from one of the state or city arts agencies, and our guide, a man who worked for the real estate company that managed the building. And he gave us a very well-informed tour of the building, showing off its Gothic elements, the ornamentation in the lobby, describing its structural peculiarities (it has several owing to the fact that such a large building had never been built before).

But the memory I have of being on that top floor in an empty apartment. It had been used as a dentist office. We had the opportunity to get in because they were between tenants at the moment. But you know the eerie feeling you get in the upper floors of a very tall skyscraper, the constant moaning and crying of the wind, the feeling of isolation and distance from the city so far below, and the slight swaying motion under your feet. Just the handful of us in this remote place, the room empty of furniture. And there was an observation deck we could go out on – -I thought the wind would throw me overboard.

And just across the way, just a couple of blocks distant, but it felt closer, almost close enough to touch, was the sheer metal and glass striped face of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. I’d never seen it from this perspective — few people ever had. At close to 800 feet, we were at something approaching 2/3 of the way up. Really only helicopters ever saw the building that high that close. Looking southwest it nearly filled one’s field of vision. And while we stood there looking at it for what seemed like hours, we inevitably got on to the subject of the 1993 bombing and the likelihood (really the inevitability) of such a thing happening again.

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After September 11 happened a few months later, I thought of that day so many times. I put myself in the shoes of the the people trapped in the North Tower, remembering what that perspective at the top of the building was like. And remembered that conversation with the strange old rich couple that seemed so eerily prescient. I also remember the man telling us about the elevators — the Woolworth Building has very few of them and they’re very narrow, in order to accommodate what for a time was thought of as redundancy in the structural elements. But in light of the collapse of the Twin Towers due their own engineering innovations, the construction of the older building didn’t seem so unwise all of the sudden.

Anyway, this is what I’ll always think of when I think of the Woolworth Building. It was almost as though that moment of time, and that perspective, had taken place in some other dimension. As though we had climbed into some weird dreamspace. Now that it’s only a memory, and that perspective (both physical and temporal) is just a memory, it is natural for it to seem like it was a dream. The weird thing is, it felt like a dream even when it was happening.

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