The skyscraper was originally conceived by F. W. Woolworth, the founder of a brand of popular five-and-ten-cent stores, as a headquarters for his eponymous company. Woolworth planned the skyscraper jointly with the Irving National Exchange Bank, which also agreed to use the structure as its headquarters. The Woolworth Building had originally been planned as a 12- to a 16-story commercial building but underwent several revisions to its plans during its planning process. Its final height was not decided upon until January 1911.
The Woolworth Building is unusual among skyscrapers for having been financed in cash. Its owner was five and dime king, Frank W. Woolworth, who in 1910 commissioned architect Cass Gilbert to design a Gothic-style skyscraper to soar above City Hall Park on a full-block site on Broadway between Park Place and Barclay Street. The height and cost escalated from an estimated 625 feet and $5 million to the final of 792 feet for $13.5 million. The extensive foundations and wind-bracing necessary for a tall and slender tower and the elaborate terra-cotta exterior and sumptuous lobby desired by Woolworth helped to inflate the costs. Until recently, however, the building never had a mortgage--an unusual circumstance for any large commercial structure. When the Venator Group (formerly the Woolworth Corporation) announced on June 23, 1998, that it would sell the tower to the Witkoff Group for $155 million, the building changed hands for the first time in its 85 year history.
Praised in 1913 for its "success of scale," the building remains a much-admired structure. The cruciform plan of the ornate lobby evokes religious architecture; an extensive sculptural program graces the yellow marble interior, including medieval-style caricatures of Mr Woolworth counting his dimes and of Gilbert cradling a model of the building. Gold tesserae and allegorical murals of Commerce and Labor cover the vaulted ceiling. The opening ceremonies on April 24, 1913, were as fantastic as the structure itself. President Wilson pressed a button in the White House that night and simultaneously lit up every interior floor and the exterior floodlights which illuminated the facade. It was during this same opening celebration that the Reverend S. Parkes Cadman provided the Woolworth Building with the epithet the "Cathedral of Commerce."
Renovations in the 1970s by Ehrenkrantz & Associates replaced much of the ornate exterior cladding with cast stone panels and simplified some of the ornate detailing. The building has outlived the Woolworth Company, which went out of business in 1997. In 2012 a development group purchased the top 30 floors with the intention to turn them into luxury condos, as well as make minor upgrades to the building. Proposed renovations include window replacements and new window openings, adding a canopy at the residential entrance, and restoring a long-abandoned swimming pool in the basement.