Woolworth Building manager oversees 100-year-old treasure

Exterior of the Woolworth Building, center, in Manhattan.

Exterior of the Woolworth Building, center, in Manhattan. After several decades of being closed to the public the lobby has been opened for tours. (Aug. 14, 2013) Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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Brooklyn native and old-world-building connoisseur Roy Suskin relishes the artful aesthetics of century-old edifices, taking the time to discover their hidden treasures.

Suskin is the manager of the famous Woolworth Building, renowned for its Gothic terra cotta exterior, in lower Manhattan.

At 792 feet and 60 stories, it was the world's tallest building when completed in 1913. However, its gold-leafed Byzantine mosaic and Romanesque vaulted lobby has been off limits to the public since 1941 because too many tourists and curious onlookers would stand there and block the entry of commercial tenants, Suskin said.

After decades of chasing away the curious who sought to marvel at the structure's interior of intricate carved wood moldings and Grecian marble walls and staircase, the building's owners opened its doors in April to privately scheduled tours that must be reserved online.

For the past 15 years, Suskin has begun each work day by walking through the "Cathedral of Commerce," a label given to the building on opening day -- April 24, 1913.

Suskin looks up at the lobby's sparkly gold-studded glass ceiling, which he called "unique and ornate."

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He then lowers his head to eye level and turns to the wall molding figurine depicting Cass Gilbert, the building's architect, which then sends the eye tracing faces of other men, only some identifiable, said Suskin, smirking at the humorous gargoyles.

Suskin, who is charged with maintaining and repairing the building, said: "Seldom does anything ever break in this building. It's extremely well built. You might say it was overdesigned and overbuilt to last forever.

"No computer could have ever engineered a building like this," he said, adding that buildings today are "built on the assumption that they will not last forever."

Suskin has read and examined the building's plans and is astounded at how every detail of construction and design was scrutinized to meet the symmetric artistic ideals of Gilbert and owner Frank Woolworth.

For example, he points to the ceiling, which gives the illusion of being "symmetric."


"One side is longer than the other, and one side is slightly wider than the other -- all to make it look symmetrical," he said, smiling again. "These were subtle changes that had to be redesigned and altered to make it look symmetrical."

The quest for balance also is seen at the west side of the lobby where a series of doors appear alike in dimension and height with the same Gothic design trim. But as one walks alongside the doors, the floor begins to slope downward, giving an odd sensation as the eyes continue to see the doors at the same level.

"Nothing has changed here in 100 years," he said.

Helen Curry, tour organizer and great-granddaughter of architect Gilbert, said that walking through the lobby "is like walking through a cathedral. It is a very special space. It's a glorious building that was built to be a real showplace."


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