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A Different Take On History

Above, a dramatic view of the Woolworth Building in 1938, from Berenice Abbott’s “Changing New York” Project. There may be a version without the “Rough Proof” stamp, but I didn’t see it. This angle catches the sunlight on the windows, not just where the flare is, but the entirety of the four left window lines, which coincide with the southernmost structural bay at the front facade.

Woolworth was about 25 years old when this picture was taken, and it shows in the uniformity of the terra cotta cladding of the facade: I’ve never seen it without repairs and patches. But I talked about terra cotta just the other day, and there’s no need to revisit that topic now. The reason that I find this picture interesting is the way it emphasizes the windows. It’s not a modern glass facade, obviously, but looking up like that really shows how much the terra cotta is in the vertical piers, and how much the lines of windows are mostly window.

If you want to treat International-Style modernism as a break with the past, then you see Woolworth and other buildings of its era as masonry boxes with “punched windows” that are holes in the box. The building on the left, 225 Broadway, is actually a pretty good example of that. Woolworth is not. You can legitimately describe the facade as vertical bands of masonry and glass, with narrow horizontal masonry dividers in the glass. That idea is not new, as anyone who’s ever seen a gothic cathedral can tell you. What was new(ish) at Woolworth was that the masonry was clad in terra cotta rather than stone and was meant to be supported by the steel frame behind. (In reality, the lack of expansion joints meant that the masonry stacked up and carried its own weight to a large degree, a defect in the design that had to be addressed in the 1970s and 80s, but this doesn’t change the intent of the original builders.) In other words, you can look at this facade as an intermediate step between the stone-and-glass curtain walls of medieval churches and the metal-and-glass curtain walls of post-WWII modernism.

A reminder that the stories we tell as “history” are us reading our view of the world onto past events. You can sometimes tell different stories with the same events and not be wrong in any case.