The Skyscraper and the City
The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York
Fenske shows here that the building’s multiplicity of meanings reflected the cultural contradictions that defined New York City’s modernity. For Frank Woolworth—founder of the famous five-and-dime store chain—the building served as a towering trademark, for advocates of the City Beautiful movement it suggested a majestic hotel de ville, for technological enthusiasts it represented the boldest of experiments in vertical construction, and for tenants it provided an evocative setting for high-style consumption. Tourists, meanwhile, experienced a spectacular sightseeing destination and avant-garde artists discovered a twentieth-century future. In emphasizing this faceted significance, Fenske illuminates the process of conceiving, financing, and constructing skyscrapers as well as the mass phenomena of consumerism, marketing, news media, and urban spectatorship that surround them.
As the representative example of the skyscraper as a “cathedral of commerce,” the Woolworth Building remains a commanding presence in the skyline of lower Manhattan, and the generously illustrated Skyscraper and the City is a worthy testament to its importance in American culture.
“In this superb, deeply nuanced study, Gail Fenske weaves the complex processes, multiple collaborations, and competing agendas that combined to produce a single landmark into a compelling analysis of the interplay between architecture, consumer culture, and the dynamically changing city. Both sharply focused and broad in its implications, The Skyscraper and the City reveals as much about the modern urban landscape as it does about the Woolworth Building itself.”
“Fenske’s impressively comprehensive, contextual, and deeply researched account of the making of the Woolworth Building weaves together the histories of the client, the architect, and the building itself, including design, construction, technology, and representation. It is also about the city, and no other architectural history reveals so well what it means to build a major commercial building in New York City.”
“After nearly a century, the Woolworth Building has finally found a worthy chronicler. In this book Gail Fenske describes the remarkable mix of architectural skill, business savvy and unbounded ambition that led to the creation of one of the largest and most conspicuous monuments of American 20th century culture. The story of businessman Frank Woolworth, his architect, Cass Gilbert, and the thousands of other individuals who came together to create this astonishing ‘cathedral of commerce’ is an absorbing and highly revealing tale, and Fenske tells it very well.”—Robert Bruegmann, author of Sprawl: A Compact History