From 1913 to 1930, the 792ft-tall Woolworth Building (pictured above) was the tallest manmade structure in the world. Though many other skyscrapers have long since soared higher, few can match the white neo-Gothic tower for grace and style. The great retailer, Frank W. Woolworth, paid cash for the construction, a cool $13.5 million, and by that time the former farm boy had so much clout that President Woodrow Wilson joined the opening ceremonies, switching on the building’s 80,000 lights from his desk in the White House.
Woolworth created an empire of close to 600 stores, where every item sold for five or ten cents – the ‘five-and-dimes’ that have since disappeared from the American landscape. Woolworth’s respect for the value of a dollar is captured in one the lobby paintings, where he is depicted counting nickels. Not that Woolworth was a penny-pincher, as the ornate mosaic tiles, acres of marble, and gold-leafed cornices in his so-called Cathedral of Commerce attest. He was downright extravagant when it came to his own comforts, building an estate on Long Island that required the services of an army of servants. His most famous descendant was granddaughter Barbara Hutton. Once the world’s richest woman, her seven husbands included princes, barons, and the actor Cary Grant.
You can only peer into the ornate Woolworth lobby from the entrance, but you may muse on commerce and fortunes as you gaze upon the tower from the monumental steps of the New York State Supreme Court (60 Centre St). If the surroundings seem familiar, that’s because they appear in the opening of the long-running television show Law and Order.