The Skyscraper and the City: The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York

September 18, 2008

This is a wonderful book: it is scholarly, well-written, beautifully illustrated (with an array of fascinating historic photographs, drawings and much else) and utterly absorbing. The Woolworth Building at 233 Broadway in New York, completed in 1913, was dreamt up by Franklin ("Frank") Winfield Woolworth as a profit-making skyscraper, as the administrative headquarters for his empire of five-and-ten-cent stores, and as an advertisement.

But the Woolworth Building was far more than that. It was, when built, the tallest skyscraper in the world, consisting of an audacious steel-framed structure clad with stone and terracotta.

Indeed, it was really a city within a city, with its own steam-driven engines, generators, sumptuous accommodation, and even a "rathskeller" (a corruption of Ratskeller, the restaurant or tavern found in German-speaking countries in the basement of many a town hall, or Rathaus). The Germanic theme was also evident when the Woolworth Building was compared in an illustration published in 1912 in Scientific American with the 52,226-ton, 269.09m long and magnificently appointed Hamburg-Amerika liner SS Imperator, then the largest ocean-going ship in the world (she passed to the Cunard Line in 1919 as reparation for the loss of RMS Lusitania, and was renamed RMS Berengaria).

Woolworth chose as his architect Cass Gilbert, who had trained in the office of McKim, Mead & White from 1880, working largely on domestic projects under the charismatic Stanford White (who was shot dead by a jealous rival in amorous matters in Madison Square Garden, which had been built to designs by his own firm).

Gilbert went on to design the State Capitol in St Paul, Minnesota, a vast Beaux-Arts pile with a cupola based on that at St Peter's Basilica in Rome: the State Capitol made Gilbert's reputation.

The man who was to become Woolworth's architect was a fine draughtsman and watercolourist: Gail Fenske's superb book reproduces some drawings made on his travels. There is a well-observed study of the west tower of Ely Cathedral, made in 1905, but even more telling are his sketches made in Nuremberg in 1897 in which his eye for the Picturesque is amply demonstrated.

Indeed, Gilbert made studies of what we might now term "townscape", delighting in the ways in which individual tall buildings with elaborate tops enhanced views of parts of towns and cities. In particular, he travelled in Belgium and Germany, making sketches of Gothic details in Cologne Cathedral (1910), for example, and of the belfry and spires in Brugge (made in 1905 on notepaper of the Norddeutscher Lloyd liner Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse).

During his sketching tour of Flanders, Gilbert is known to have admired the unfinished tower of the cathedral of St Rombout, Mechelen (1452-1546), the steeple of Antwerp Cathedral and various medieval town halls including that at Oudenaarde (which Fenske perversely calls the Hotel de Ville, instead of Stadhuis, at "Audenarde").

In the Woolworth Building, northern European Gothic informed much of the terracotta decorations, but Woolworth himself had also travelled on the Continent, notably in Germany, so it is not surprising that the interiors provided a glorious melange of eclectic styles. The "rathskeller" was decorated with medieval Germanic hunting scenes; Woolworth's office was in the French Empire style; and the lobby-arcade was clearly influenced by the tomb of Galla Placidia in Ravenna, but with Gothic enrichments (including corbels carved with portraits of Woolworth and Gilbert).

This book, showing the building under construction, and just after it was finished, will delight anyone interested in real architecture, consumer culture and the urban landscape. In Fenske, the Woolworth Building has found a sympathetic and thorough chronicler, and her work is a monument in itself to the urban culture and admiration for things European (especially German) that existed before the catastrophe of 1914-18.

The Skyscraper and the City: The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York

By Gail Fenske. University of Chicago Press. 400pp, £34.00. ISBN 9780226241418. Published 22 August 2008

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