PD Smith

Wonder of Woolworth

"W, X and O: From 5-cent stores to the Manhattan Project: how city architecture reflected social and technological change"

Times Literary Supplement, 30 January 2009, pp 3-5

Gail Fenske, The Skyscraper and the City: The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York (U of Chicago Press), £34, 352pp.

Robert H. Kargon & Arthur P. Molella, Invented Edens: Techno-Cities of the Twentieth Century (MIT), £16.95, 190pp.

Dell Upton, Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American Republic ( Yale U Press), £30, 416pp.

By PD Smith

At 7:30 on the evening of 24 April 1913, President Woodrow Wilson pushed a button on his desk in Washington DC, sending a telegraphic signal to New York where it set off an alarm bell in the engine room of a skyscraper and set in motion four mighty Corliss-type engines and dynamos. In an instant some 80,000 incandescent bulbs flashed on, illuminating for the first time the world’s tallest skyscraper – the Woolworth Building. Thousands of spectators had gathered in City Hall Park and along lower Broadway to witness the dazzling electrical spectacle that marked the opening of this 55-storey addition to New York’s skyline. On the New Jersey shore people caught their breath as the tower appeared, shimmering against the night sky, a gleaming beacon of modernity visible from ships a hundred miles away. As the 792-foot tall skyscraper was bathed in electric light, the news was being transmitted from its pinnacle by Marconi wireless to a receiver on the Eiffel Tower. From there it was beamed around the world. This modern media event was, as one commentator said, “the premier publicity stunt of this or any other day”. It was a fitting opening for what would become the most famous office building in the world.

The pinnacled tower of the Woolworth Building no longer dominates New York’s vertiginous skyline as it once did. But at the time this “singular Gothic spire” offered New Yorkers passing by on the sidewalk “an experience of sheer vertical ascent unrivalled by the taller but stepped-back skyscrapers of the 1920s”. Gail Fenske’s beautifully illustrated biography of this landmark building tells the fascinating story of the people behind its construction, from the workers who risked the bends digging its 100-foot deep foundations in pressurised caissons, to the structural ironworkers, balanced precariously hundreds of feet above ground, who assembled its steel skeleton at a record-breaking rate of a storey and a half a week. But two figures loom large in the story of this architectural marvel: the building’s architect, Cass Gilbert, and Frank Woolworth, the building’s owner.

Members of New York’s Hardware Club were rumoured to refer to Woolworth as “the Napoleon of commerce”. Within thirty years, Woolworth had built his chain of five- and ten-cent stores into a $65 million multinational corporation, including seven three-and-sixpence stores in Britain. Ironically, according to Fenske, Woolworth was “an outstandingly inept salesman”. But whatever his skills behind a retail counter, he was undoubtedly a shrewd businessman. In particular, he was an expert judge of urban locations for his stores. In choosing the site for his New York headquarters he made detailed studies of crowd flows along the Manhattan sidewalks. He wanted his skyscraper to be at the pulsing heart of the metropolis. It would promote the identity of his company like a “giant signboard”, he told a friend, becoming the flagship of his vast retail empire, a “monument to the Woolworth business”.

The man he chose to design his landmark structure was Cass Gilbert. When he first met Woolworth, Gilbert had been running a successful New York architectural practice dedicated to the “city beautiful” for thirty years. He described himself as “just an ordinary young fellow with his mind so bent on his art and so intent on it that everything else was second to it”. What Fenske describes as his “monumental, pictorial, and lavishly decorated Beaux-Arts compositions” had already helped create the visual identity of New York as a modern world-city. Gilbert and Woolworth were both ambitious men, keen to create a spectacular architectural statement that would raise their profiles in New York and America. On business trips to Europe, Woolworth had made notes on buildings. The Victoria Tower of the Houses of Parliament in London made a particular impression on him. A soaring tower such as this would, he believed, imprint the Woolworth corporate brand forever on the skyline of New York.

Later Gilbert recalled drily that his client took a keen interest in progress on his building: “There was no detail that did not have Frank Woolworth’s personal supervision…somewhat to my temporary distress.” Woolworth was not disappointed in his choice of architect. The finished building was a triumph, both aesthetically and technologically. From the outset, Gilbert had made it clear he was not interested in designing “a purely commercial structure”. He wanted “to clothe it with beauty” and “to make it a worthy ornament to the great city of New York”. Although Woolworth kept a close eye on every purchase, no expense was spared. The steel-framed structure was clad with costly cream and ivory terra cotta, matte glazed to give the skyscraper the patina of age and a hand-crafted appearance. But this was the machine age and the building was also fitted with the latest plumbing, electrical and ventilating technologies. The interior decorations were opulent beyond anything that had been seen before in New York’s skyscrapers. To walk through the Tudor Gothic portal and into the cruciform lobby arcade, with its stunning blue, red and gold Byzantine mosaics, was to experience the spiritual aura of a great cathedral. Woolworth was satisfied with his skyscraper. It was “beautiful beyond description”, he said, rivalling even the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

For all its evocative allusions to early Christian and Gothic architecture, the Woolworth Building was without question a modern cathedral to commerce and, as Fenske ably demonstrates, a “heroic feat of technology.” In the early years of the twentieth century, there seemed to be no limits to what science and technology would achieve. Even Utopia (or more accurately, eutopia) seemed to be within the grasp of city planners. Robert H. Kargon and Arthur P. Molella’s Invented Edens examines this attempt to realise the dream of the ideal city with the wonders of technology, urban experiments they term “techno-cities”. Beginning with Ebenezer Howard’s seminal notion of the “Garden City” in the 1890s, their slim yet detailed study shows how this urban model was reinterpreted between the wars in the very different contexts of New Deal liberalism (Norris, Tennessee), Italian Fascism (Torviscosa, Friuli-Venizia Giulia), Soviet Communism (Stalingrad), and German Nazism (Salzgitter, Lower Saxony). In each case “modernist reformers” sought to redefine the classic industrial city, designing out urban problems such as congestion, pollution and disease. These were all cities on a human scale, with walkable distances, open communal spaces and greenbelts. For city planners from Roosevelt’s America to Hitler’s Germany, the techno-city became “technologically enhanced Edens that were to be the birthplaces of a ‘new man’”.

Later attempts to build the ideal city included Oak Ridge in East Tennessee. Originally known only as Site X, this secret city didn’t appear on maps until 1949. It was created as part of the Manhattan Project to build that most terrible symbol of our techno-scientific age: the atomic bomb. Its industrial facilities enriched uranium and the K-25 gaseous diffusion plant that still looms over the landscape was “the largest building in the world under one roof”. By the end of the war some 75,00 people were living in Oak Ridge. Yet the plan for this techno-city harked back to romantic notions of man’s place in nature, with tree-lined streets and houses laid out not in a mathematical grid but “in organic clusters to foster a sense of community”. There is, of course, a profound and tragic irony in the fact that the people who lived in this utopian city were building a weapon designed for one purpose – to destroy cities. Like the mythic Eden invoked by Kargon and Molella, this ideal Garden City was built with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil right at its heart.

The authors conclude with an account of the design and construction of Celebration in Florida. Opened in 1996, it was originally the “utopian dream” of Walt Disney who envisaged a space-age, futuristic environment. In contrast, this New Urbanist city looks more Norman Rockwell than Buck Rogers. But the pre-World War II architectural styles are a veneer concealing the high-technology, such as an advanced fibre optic communication network. According to Kargon and Molella this is “a revolution designed to give us both our past and our future at the same time”. As the authors point out, such techno-cities have always been an uneasy union of both modernist and anti-modern elements. In the same way as the Woolworth Building fused high-technology with Gothic fantasy, so the planners of techno-cities were “drawn to the nostalgic notion of the pre-industrial village Eden”, an attempt to bring small-town values into the city. What the authors term “techno-nostalgia” created a fatal fault line running through the ideal of the techno-city: “the machine in the garden is a seductive dream, but a problematic reality”. Techno-cities may have been “bold social experiments”, but in the end they were doomed to failure.

Invented Edens offers many intriguing and original insights into the links between technology and urban planning. But it lacks a strong sense of what it was like to live in these techno-cities. The physicality of the urban experience is, however, splendidly evoked by Dell Upton in Another City, his impressive study of city life in the new American republic. For Upton, cities are human environments, not just collections of architectural structures. To describe the urban landscape you need both intellectual history and the experiences of “the bodies that built and used it”. Upton’s book offers a memorable glimpse of the “sensory encounter” with early nineteenth century American cities. Drawing extensively on travel accounts, diaries, and letters he shows how the “insistent and importunate sights, sounds and smells surpassed anything previously known in the new nation”.

According to Upton, “oceans of fetor” flooded antebellum American cities. Tanneries, distilleries, slaughterhouses, and fat-rendering plants all belched their unique stenches into the metropolitan air. Added to this were the smells of the animals with which people shared their cities: horses, cattle, goats and pigs. In New York, “public porkers” were still roaming the streets in the middle of the nineteenth century. Most American cities of the time had no drainage systems. Rubbish was generally thrown out into the street where it collected in a putrefying heap known as “corporation pie”, until scavengers hired by the city disposed of it. “Climate, poor drainage, unpaved streets, and air pollution rendered the urban environment palpable as well as fragrant,” writes Upton, with notable understatement.

It was not just the noses of urbanites, but also their ears that were continually assailed. Even before the internal combustion engine, a perpetual cacophony reigned in the city. One person complained that in New Orleans “the very air howls with an eternal din and noise”. There was the clatter of metal-rimmed cartwheels on cobbled streets, the sound of manufacturing in the upper storeys of residential buildings, and the cries of street vendors: “Hot Muf-fins!”, “Sweep, O-O-O-O!” According to Upton, the sheer sensory overload of urban life, the kaleidoscopic deluge of experiences in the city, challenged people’s sense of self: “The relics of civilized life that bombarded the senses, and the mixed throngs that crowded the streets of antebellum cities, were the crucible within which city dwellers formed a sense of what it meant to be a citizen of a republican city.”

As Upton’s meticulously researched study shows, it was this daily confrontation with the chaotic nature of urban life that convinced citizens of the new republic that they needed to bring order and unity to American cities. Believing as they did that the environment can shape the moral outlook of individuals, Americans attempted to create urban environments that were both civilized and urbane, ones that encouraged a sense of community and shared citizenship. As Kargon and Molella show, such aspirations continued to resonate in twentieth-century debates about the ideal city.

In the years after 1790, urban elites in America tried to realize their dream of a shining city upon a hill. A concerted effort was made to “regulate” their cityscapes, a term used for what Upton describes as the “meticulous ordering” of the environment: “The regulation projects of the early republic constituted an aggressive new campaign to subdue the environment, creating a landscape that would embody republican values and that would promote republican modes of citizenship and selfhood.” They introduced quieter street surfaces, passed laws against vendors using “noisemakers” and criers to attract customers, built sewers, relocated cemeteries away from city centres, replanted parks and squares to make them suitable for genteel promenading, and cleaned up waterfronts – “all projects directed toward the twin goals of civilization and urbanity”. Cities were redesigned, often using a grid plan (as in New York and Philadelphia), in order to create environments where civilized and urbane interactions could take place.

The attempt to transform spaces and lives in the new republic extended to institutions such as Philadelphia’s revolutionary Eastern State Penitentiary, “one of the most significant architectural monuments of the early republic”. Just as the aim here was to create model citizens out of criminals, so Upton argues that there was a concerted attempt to “reorder human relationships” in American cities at this time in order to create a new republican self. Ultimately, however, this “republican spatial imagination” (as Upton terms it) was somewhat less successful at reforming people’s lives than it was at reorganising urban spaces. Life in the big city remained irredeemably chaotic and messy. Fortunately so, perhaps, for as one writer said in 1854 about New York, “its hurry, its bustle”, and its constant noise were all a vital part of the dynamism of life in the modern metropolis: “It is contagious, and it has a good effect upon the spirits and health of an idle man.”

[NB. This version may differ slightly from the published one.]