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The ceiling of the Woolworth Building lobby.

The ceiling of the Woolworth Building lobby. (Credit: Cristian Salazar)

landmarks

Secrets of the Woolworth Building lobby

233 Broadway, New York, NY 10007

When it opened in April 1913, the Gothic 792-foot Woolworth Building was christened the tallest building in the world. Although it has long since been surpassed in height, its ornate landmark lobby continues to awe visitors.

Once home to an arcade of shops and the Irving National Exchange Bank, the lobby stands two stories high. The north and south wings include open mezzanines. Byzantine-inspired glass floral mosaics of blue, green, gold and red decorate the barrel-vaulted ceilings. Carved marble quarried from the Greek Island of Skyros shapes the walls. Gothic patterns traced in bronze embellish doorways.

Because of its grandeur, both inside and out, the Woolworth Building came to be known as the "Cathedral of Commerce."

"It's really a fantasy," said Helen Post Curry, the great granddaughter of the building's architect. "It's not historically accurate in any shape or form."

Today the lobby is closed to visitors. The arcade no longer has stores filling their windows with goods. The bank is closed. The building itself is a mix of residential and businesses. But the lobby is almost library quiet and empty save for security guards.

The only way to get in is through tours organized by Curry through Woolworth Tours (http://woolworthtours.com). She gave amNewYork an exclusive tour on Tuesday. Here are seven things we learned.

Although it might have made sense to build

Credit: Cristian Salazar

There is a massive vault where Woolworth ran a safety deposit business

Although it might have made sense to build a massive vault in the basement for the bank, which was the anchor tenant, it was instead installed for a Woolworth venture: safety deposit boxes.

The lobby and its arcade of shops were

Credit: Cristian Salazar

The lobby opens up to a grand marble staircase

The lobby and its arcade of shops were intended from the beginning of the design of the tower. The entrance, called "Marble Hall," opened to a marble staircase leading to the bank. Shops were on the floors below. Ceilings were planned at 20 feet high and the lobby about 15 feet wide.

At each staircase leading up to the mezzanines,

Credit: Cristian Salazar

The likenesses of the tower's builders adorn the lobby

At each staircase leading up to the mezzanines, a figure crouches in the upper corner. They also appear elsewhere throughout the lobby. The likenesses feature the faces of key people involved in the construction of the skyscraper, their portraits very realistic while their bodies are grotesques. Each holds something that symbolizes their role: Gilbert holding a model of the building; Woolworth with coins; builder Louis Horowitz on the phone to symbolize his use of communication technology in making sure the construction of the building ran smoothly.

A grand staircase leads from the lobby down

Credit: Cristian Salazar

Two subway lines were once accessible from the basement

A grand staircase leads from the lobby down into the basement, where anyone had direct access to both the IRT and BRT subway lines. They were closed off for security concerns. Today the area is used for bike storage.

These salamanders, which were once thought to be

Credit: Cristian Salazar

Salamanders are depicted throughout the building

These salamanders, which were once thought to be able to survive fire, symbolize the architect's claim of "thoroughly fireproof construction." The building has a steel frame dressed in fireproof terra cotta.

German immigrant artist C. Paul Jennewein painted the

Credit: Cristian Salazar

Mezzanine triptychs represent “commerce” and “labor”

German immigrant artist C. Paul Jennewein painted the murals, which in their design appear to reinforce the ecclesiastical or cathedral-like feel of the lobby. In "Labor," a central female figure holds a spindle of flax; two kneeling boys offer up grain and flax and fruit. In "Commerce," a female figure holds a globe; two boys flanking her on each side hold a clipper ship and a locomotive.

Tiffany Studios designed steel decorative doors with arabesque

Credit: Cristian Salazar

Tiffany Studios designed some of the elevator doors.

Tiffany Studios designed steel decorative doors with arabesque patterns for some of the 24 elevators in the lobby, which were designed to accommodate up to seven people at a time. State-of-the-art high-speed elevator service shuttled passengers to their destinations. Elevators also once took passengers to the observation gallery on the fifty-fourth floor.

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