Streetscapes | Woolworth Building
IT’S like a fungus that runs up and down the tower of the Woolworth Building, at Broadway and Park Place. From every angle the cream-colored surface has dirty, discolored patches, the unanticipated consequences of a major restoration project three decades ago.
Frank Woolworth began accumulating his 5-and-10-cent store fortune in 1879, and by 1886 he opened a headquarters in New York City. He was a multimillionaire by 1900, when he built a lacy Gothic-style limestone house at Fifth Avenue and 80th Street, a building demolished in the 1920s.
It was designed by Charles P. H. Gilbert, a mansion specialist who worked up and down the avenue. He also designed the main building of the Jewish Museum, at 92nd Street.
In 1911, Woolworth announced plans for the tallest building in the world, to be constructed on Broadway between Park Place and Barclay Street. Like his house, Woolworth’s new building was to be neo-Gothic and designed by a Gilbert — in this case, Cass Gilbert, who was not related to Charles but was instead an aggressive out-of-towner who had elbowed his way into New York City architecture.
In 1905, Gilbert had designed the boxy Gothic-style West Street Building, at West and Cedar Streets, one of many structures to use the new technology of glazed terra cotta to clad a tall building, and the architect used it as a model for the Woolworth Building.
For Woolworth, Gilbert doubled the size of the 23-story West Street building and then some, to 55 floors, with a pyramidal roof 792 feet high. That topped the 700-foot Metropolitan Life tower, built at Madison Avenue and 24th Street in 1909.
Paul Starrett was one of the contractors bidding on the Woolworth project, and in his 1938 book, “Changing the Skyline,” he recalled trying to persuade Woolworth to use more traditional materials.
“In stone it would be magnificent,” he said, but in terra cotta, “it would look like a 5-and-10-cent store proposition.”
He did not get the job.
The utility of terra cotta was irrefutable: each block of fired clay, usually hollowed out, was a fraction of the weight of brick or stone. The blocks were easily modeled in intricate forms and were protected by a glaze that shed dirt.
A 1912 ad by the Atlantic Terra Cotta Company in The Real Estate Record and Guide boasted, “Cream color in another material would be dark and dirty after a few years’ exposure.”
Unlike many prior skyscrapers, the Woolworth Building was well received by the architectural intelligentsia. It had no raw blank side walls, and the Gothic-style detailing seemed an honest reflection of the new steel-frame technology.
Writing in The Architectural Record in 1913, Montgomery Schuyler particularly admired the way Gilbert adjusted the scale of the ornament. The finials, shields, crockets and other details were not simply giant-sized to look good from a distance but also held up to close view from neighboring buildings.
Compared with European models, “this brand-new American Gothic loses nothing,” Mr. Schuyler said.
But Mr. Starrett’s misgivings were well founded. In his 1938 book he recalled, apparently from years earlier, “the spectacle of the upper part of the Woolworth Building, wired up with metal mesh to catch the falling terra cotta.”
By 1962, The New York Times reported that riggers were repairing broken pieces all year round.
These problems only grew worse, and in the 1970s the Woolworth company retained Ezra D. Ehrenkrantz & Associates (now Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn) to examine every one of the 400,000 terra-cotta blocks. The architecture firm found that 25,000 of them needed complete replacement and selected precast concrete instead.
The concrete had a surface coating, meant to be renewed every five years, to shed soil and moisture, like the glaze on the terra-cotta blocks.
Timothy Allanbrook, now a senior consultant at Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, an architecture and engineering firm in Northbrook, Ill., worked for Ehrenkrantz at the time and was on and off the scaffolds at the Woolworth Building for three years.
He says the prescription for periodic resealing has not been followed, so the porous concrete has been absorbing water and dirt for years. He suspects that the concrete has absorbed so much dirt that it cannot be cleaned sufficiently so that it matches the original terra cotta, which may leave another replacement as the only option.
Mr. Allanbrook said that 30 years ago, the terra-cotta industry was in decline, making concrete “the optimal choice in a narrow field of imperfect choices.”
Now, terra cotta has seen a resurgence, so the original material could be a reasonable replacement, Mr. Allanbrook said; so could newer materials like concrete reinforced with glass fiber.
Roy Suskin, a vice president of the Witkoff Group, the building’s owner, declined to discuss the problem and any plans for remedying it.