The picture above shows an angle not possible until a few years ago and, surprisingly, makes me like the Woolworth Building even more. First, the where: when 30 Park Place, a not-quite supertall residential building (only 926 feet high) was completed in 2016, a mid-block passage, or maybe a long skinny plaza, was constructed just east of it. You can now walk between Barclay Street and Park Place in the center of the block between Broadway and Church Street. Since New York has almost no alleys, this kind of walkway pretty much always comes about as part of a zoning deal when a new building is constructed: a little more bulk allowed for the public amenity. Some of the resulting walkways are terrible; some, like this one, are quite nice.
There are now exactly four buildings on the block: 30 Park Place covers the west end of the block, the Woolworth Building covers the east end, and 22 Park Place and 21 Barclay Street are sandwiched in between. This leads to exactly what we’re seeing in that photo. Most of the shot is the west side, the back, of Woolworth, with the tower visible above the deep light court in the base. The foreground, with the very large windows and dark stone, is a small service building that’s part of 30 Park Place. The main building of 30 Park Place is at the very top of the photo, as it was behind me as I was aiming the lens upward. The tall building on the right is a huge apartment house built in 2006 at 10 Barclay Street. Between 10 Barclay and Woolworth, you see a sliver of 225 Broadway.
So, for over five years, it’s been possible for the public to walk close to the back of Woolworth, something that had never been possible before. Big whoop, as we used to say at PS20. Who cares? Well, the angle you pick to look at a building affects how you see it and how you think about it. In cities with more land than New York, a lot of monuments are freestanding, with streets or plazas on all sides. Woolworth is lucky compare to most New York skyscrapers in that it faces City Hall Park, so its front is visible from close up to far way with no obstructions. You can also see the tower – the top 25 or so stories – from north and south on Broadway. That’s had the effect of focussing attention on the slender tower that is less than half the building’s height. From the new passage, you’re seeing the base of the building and it’s close, so there is only the one perspective on it. The importance of the light court is obvious, as is its existence, which is surprisingly not well known. Best of all, the structural braces crossing the light court can be seen to be present in two planes, one slightly set back form the rear facades and one closer to the front, which cannot be seen clearly from anywhere else. Those braces are to make the two wings of the rear act as a single block for resisting north-south wind load, a design trick that was pretty much necessary with the analysis methods in use around 1910. This is a fine piece of structural engineering by Gunvald Aus and deserves to be seen.