By David V. Griffin
The tallest skyscraper in the world when it opened in 1913, the dramatic Gothic-style Woolworth Building is generally considered the masterpiece of Cass Gilbert, the New York City architect who designed it.
When the terra cotta-clad structure reached its centenary in April of 2013, the architect’s great-granddaughter, Helen Post Curry, approached the building’s management about opening up the off-limits lobby to celebratory programs and tours.
“It felt like something that had to happen,” Curry said, pointing out that the spectacular mosaic-encrusted lobby had been closed to visitors since the 1940s as tourists began to crowd the building’s tenants.
The owner of Look LLC, a prominent Connecticut interior design firm, Curry threw herself into the logistics of reopening one of the city’s most notable and least accessible interiors, aided by her brother Chuck Post of San Francisco.
The resulting 100-years celebration, dubbed “Woolworth Week,” involved a reception at the nearby Skyscraper Museum, a lecture at the American Institute of Architects and a gala dinner, along with tours of the magnificent lobby that were so popular that the Witkoff Group, owners of the Woolworth Building’s office spaces, contacted Curry about continuing the tours.
Curry’s interest in her great-grandfather’s work extends to his remaining legacy in New York and elsewhere. “The trouble is that with the exception of the Alexander Hamilton Custom House [now home to the George Gustav Heye Center for Native American Art and the New York Bankruptcy Court] the lobbies of Gilbert’s other New York buildings are either off limits due to security issues or are inappropriate for tours.”
By offering tours of limited numbers and varying lengths, Curry hopes to strike a balance that will satisfy visitors and keep the building’s tenants happy.
“We’re very sensitive to the needs of the occupants,” she says. “On the other hand, we’re making a New York City landmarked interior available to the public. It’s a PR coup for the Witkoff Group, and a benefit to the city’s tourism and cultural life.”
Tours are priced from $15 for a half hour to $45 for a detailed hour and a half that takes visitors into service areas and behind-the-scenes spaces.
“All of our guides have their own unique interests and specialties,” Curry says. “Tours can be customized to accentuate a group’s interests in anything from architecture to social history.”
Over 2,000 people have taken the tours since Curry started the program in July of last year and she believes the program could be expanded considerably.
“Our biggest challenge is marketing,” she says. “So many people who love the building are still convinced the lobby is permanently closed.”