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Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures The Architecture and Development of New York City with Andrew S. Dolkart
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The Woolworth Lobby
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The Woolworth Lobby
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The Woolworth Building's lobby is one of the most spectacular publicly accessible spaces in New York (although it is currently closed to the public), and it really exemplifies the design ideas of lobbies in the first generation of office buildings. This lobby is extraordinarily lavish, yet the lobby serves only one purpose really, which is to get people from the street to the elevators. But clearly there was a lot more to the lobby than just a utilitarian space.

Woolworth spent an enormous amount of money on the lobby. It is one of the most lavish spaces in New York. And what is, of course, ironic about it is that Woolworth's fortune came from frugal shopping, from people spending their nickels and dimes at Woolworth stores, and yet the lobby makes no allusion to that kind of frugality—it is richly decorated with heavily veined marble from Greece and marble floors from Vermont. Designers, artists, and sculptors were hired to make the building lobby absolutely extraordinary.

And why was this done? Well, because the lobby said something about Woolworth and Woolworth's partner in the construction, the Irving National Bank. These were major corporations and they wanted a presence in the lobby, so that you knew when you arrived here that you had arrived someplace important. And this is made even more evident by the extensive use of W's, the initial for Woolworth, and caricatures done by a very famous caricaturist in the early twentieth century named Tom Johnson, who did caricatures of all the people involved with the construction of the building. There is Woolworth counting his nickels and dimes; there is Cass Gilbert cradling a model of the building; there is Gunvald Aus, the engineer, holding onto a steel beam; and there are others as well. All of these say something about the importance of the Woolworth Corporation.

In addition, the building was primarily a rental building. Woolworth only occupied a floor and a half of the building, and one way to attract tenants was to have an exquisite lobby so that when tenants or their guests came here they would know that they had arrived someplace important.

The way in which the lobby is designed is very carefully thought out. There is a small intermediate outer lobby, and then you go through a series of revolving doors and you burst into this brightly colored, very tall space.

Heineicke and Bowen, a very prominent decorating firm in the early twentieth century, was hired to do most of the work inside, and they prepared barrel-vaulted mosaics filled with flowers and birds and other ornament that were modeled after the early Christian mosaics in Ravenna, Italy. They were responsible for the stained-glass dome over the marble staircase that led to the Irving Bank. And it was they who put together the marble, the bronze, the plaster, the mosaics, and the stained glass—all of the different materials used to create this very special interior.

One of the things that is always worth looking at in these early lobbies are the mailboxes, the directory boards, and the elevators, which were often designed in an extremely beautiful way. And the mailboxes here are still intact. They are bronze; they have Gothic ornament, which echo the exterior of the building; they have W's for Woolworth; and they have shields with caducei on them, a symbol of Mercury, the god of commerce, which was appropriate for this major, major commercial undertaking.

Much of the detail in the building says something about Woolworth or about the ideals behind the building. The stained glass has dates on it, including the date that the first Woolworth store opened, 1879, and 1913, the date that the Woolworth Building was completed. There are also murals in the building, one about labor and one about commerce, which are two themes that run through the building.

This, in addition to the W's and the heads of people involved with the building, are all very specific to the ideas of the Woolworth Building.

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