We haven’t even scratched the surface on our list of oldest churches in New York, but I’m inspired by a new topic: skyscrapers! Apparently there are a lot of them around this city. Really, and they seem so much more exciting than a church. Think of all the thought tangents they might lead us down. Think of all the facts and personalities swirling around the creation of each edifice. The ways of thinking and beliefs that led to the building of New York’s churches are old, and started somewhere other than here. You can’t truly say the same of skyscrapers. They are a 20th century creation – born out of New York and Chicago, completely changing the landscapes of those cities, and many more to follow. Before they came along the tallest structures in Manhattan were its church towers. It’s fitting that skyscrapers replaced them. Commerce and finance were the new religion right? Hey, the Woolworth Building was even nicknamed “The Cathedral of Commerce” when it opened in 1913.
Although it does look like a cathedral, so the name makes sense on several levels. It was built in a neo-Gothic style, modeled on European Gothic cathedrals and replete with intricate terra cotta stone work and gargoyles. When it was officially opened on April 24th, 1913 it was the tallest building in the world, replacing the Met Life Tower (as opposed to the MetLife Building) which stands at the very southern end of Madison Avenue. The Met Life Tower had been the tallest building since 1909, when it replaced the Singer Building (now demolished) at Liberty Street and Broadway. The Singer Building itself had been the tallest in the world for only one year, having beaten out Philadelphia City Hall in 1908. Basically it was a mad scramble back then, each construction firm and business competing to build higher. Woolworth, and his architect Cass Gilbert, did a pretty good job. Their building would remain the world’s highest until 1930, when both 40 Wall Street and then the Chrysler Building replaced it. 40 Wall Street was supposed to be the taller of the two by literally a couple of feet. But Walter Chrysler had his developers secretly build a 185 foot spire to hoist atop the finished building, realizing his dream of owning the tallest skyscraper in the world. Alas, such lofty dreams are fleeting, as the Empire State Building would be finished the following year, beginning its 41 year reign at the top.
The Woolworth Building is still the prettiest of all of them in my book (you’re all in my book too, don’t worry). Call it attention to detail. Or maybe money to spare. The building was financed entirely by cash, about 13.5 million dollars worth, paid up front. Until the building was sold in 1998 there had never been a mortgage on it. The same year the building was sold the Woolworth Company closed all of its Woolworth chains and renamed itself the Venator Group. They’re now called Foot Locker Inc. and they also own Champ Sports, amongst many other sporting good stores. Now why does that seem so shitty? Why does the old Woolworths chain seem somehow more nostalgic and American? Just because it was a longer time ago? I am admittedly a sucker for that kind of thing. But what was F.W. Woolworth’s innovation really except a new and different way to make a lot of money? He pioneered the five and dime, a retail store with fixed, cheap prices, and all the merchandise laid out where customers could touch it. No more haggling over wares. It was a new paradigm and it took off so well it eventually drove his old stores out of business. But his money had already been made. All right, whatever, it’s a nice trick figuring out how to make a living. As opposed to just living, which I would generally describe as a lot easier. Oh, and also compulsory, which I suppose is what can make it feel so free – or alternately inexorable. Tomorrow erases today, right? Or is it that tomorrow doesn’t exist? No wait, tomorrow’s what we live for. I forget. They build churches for that kind of thing. The one in my neighborhood is the 204th oldest in NYC, and it cost a lot less than $13.5 million to build. Hmmm, it’s not too tall though.
(Originally posted May 8th, 2009 on Takethehandle.com)