Woolworths: Dead (Again!)


Poor old Frank W. Woolworth must be spinning yet again in his trustworthy, bargain-basement “5 and dime” grave at the latest, and perhaps mercifully final death-throws of his century-old (nearly) retail chain.

The venerable outfit folded its operations here in Canada about 15 yrs. ago when it sold out most of its stores to Wal-Mart giving that chain a ready-made commercial network of anchor tenancies in shopping malls and plazas across the land. Since then, its vestigial remnants have been desperately thrashing about in foreign markets — sort of like the same way that slaughtered animals continue to stubbornly “live” for a bit of time, twitching in a rather disturbing manner long after the sentient parts of their bodies have been cleanly severed.

Oh well. Such is the way of things — retailers come and go. Who would have thought 25 years ago that Eaton’s would disappear overnight in a puff of smoke? Accountancy of the free-market and all that. Personally, I miss the grand department stores and stylish icons of yesteryear (i-Magnin, The Bon, etc.) as opposed to the sterile “big box” hyper-marts (or “Mega-Lo-Mart” as they call it on King of the Hill).

But back to old F.W. Woolworth… Apparently, he had an inordinate fondness for Gothic-Revival architecture, in particular the Houses of Parliament in London. The Cass Gilbert designed skyscraper that Woolworth built to headquarter his company was intended to be a “Cathedral of Commerce” — a motif that comes across loud and clear.

Constructed in 1913, the tower reaches a height of 241,2m (793.5 feet). Until the completion of the Bank of Manhattan tower and Chrysler building in 1930, the Woolworth building was the tallest building in the world. The tower has a 3 story stone base, 52 stories clad in terra-cotta and a 3 story roof topped with the crowning pinnacle. An observation deck at the 58th story attracted about 100,000 visitors each year, but it was closed in 1945.

The building’s height caused several challenges at the time: it was the first building to have its own steam turbines and it had the fastest elevators (30 in total). The tower was built to withstand a wind pressure of 200 mph (322 km/h). Special kinds of scaffolding were used to minimize the danger for the construction workers.

Below is a picture of the Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, AK.

Wal-Mart HQ

Perhaps there’s some message to be drawn from the contrast between the glorious, ridiculously fantastic, neo-Gothic “Cathedral of Commerce” that F.W. Woolworth built as a manifest paean to Capitalism and the rather drab, stridently buttoned-down, utilitarian bunker favoured by the current Masters of the Retail Universe.



Filed under Architecture, Economy, Elitism

16 responses to “Woolworths: Dead (Again!)

  1. Re “I miss the grand department stores and stylish icons of yesteryear.” Is the Woodward’s building still standing (in the center of a junkie scorched earth)?

  2. SR — I believe it is. We’ve designated it a “national treasure” “architectural resource” of sorts…. The Libs are currently in the process of “revitalizing” West Hastings with that grungy old Deco eyesore as the linchpin of the whole project.

    I do kind of miss Woodward’s… My folks used to shop there every weekend. At Mayfair… I got to roam the mall while they shopped for groceries and then I’d hook back up with them, get a malted-milk and aimlessly wander about, wondering about the meaning of Life and such.

  3. Ti-Guy

    Below is a picture of the Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, AK.

    The plastic trash receptacles are a nice touch.

    The message in the contrast here is that neoliberal economics involves nothing more complicated than a race to the bottom….one which we have now reached. Just a bit more economic tragedy and we won’t be challenged as elitists anymore when we remark on just how craptastic neoliberal economics are.

  4. It’s true: those stores and chains come and go. But when childhood memories, etc. are associated with specific places, it’s always hard to let go.

    I still remember going to Woolworth’s as a child in Britain (and Boots, and all the rest). I suppose when a store like that goes under, you understand the reality that led to it, but somehow you cannot help feeling that a part of your own, personal, history, is about to disappear (and it makes you feel much older than you really are).

  5. If nothing else, I guess it speaks to the level of emotional sentimentality that we invest in some of our commercial institutions.

  6. There was always a drunk or two to have to step over at the Cordova entrance to get onto a trolley bus, although that piece of turf was mild compared to the alley way seperating the two halves of the Army-Navy. Even though the DE was Skid Row, there was commerce, a cummunity, it was lively, and it was relatively safe. The pawn shops helped me out on numerous “bridge” occasions. =;-D

  7. SR — There’s a whole “alternate” economy that doesn’t get covered by the ROB or nightly newscasts, that’s for sure. Unfortunately, I’ve had to “bridge” from time to time with the lenders of last recourse. It’s never a pleasant experience — such extreme measures rarely are.

  8. libforlife

    Ah the Woolworth’s and Kresgies on Queen Street in Niagara Falls hold some great memories. Memories like waiting for the Dorchester and Jill bus at the lunch counter on a hot summer day on those red vinyl stools while drinking a cold Coke.
    Oh how I hate Wal-Mart and McDonalds.

  9. reg dunlop

    there’s still some Steadmans&Mansteads around. Talk about junk merchants, makes GiantTiger look almost as good as a lawn sale.

  10. I wouldn’t say that our attachment is to commercial institutions only. Think about the park in your old neighbourhood where you played as a kid, or anything else for that matter — if you heard that it was going to be razed to the grounds, you’d feel quite melancholy too.

  11. Reality Bites

    Exactly Werner. I imagine the folks at CTV will feel the same way when Mike Duffy is dismantled and shipped over to the Senate on about 20 flatbed trucks.

  12. Ti-Guy

    Don’t be ridiculous, RB.

    They’re going to use one of those massive Chinook helicopters and airlift him to the Red Chamber.

  13. I miss the old Eaton’s and Simpsons in Toronto. If you could get what you wanted in one of them the store clerk would advise you to try the other store – they worked together – and the windows at Christmas were wonderful.

    I worked at Kreske’s as a bus girl, but remember it more for the hot chocolate – after skating “outdoors” we’d go in for their hot chocolate with a blob of cream on the top and a couple of cookies, so good.

  14. Whoops, there I go again – s/b If you couldn’t get what you wanted…..

    I am old – I remember the Eaton’s annex store where you could get hot ice-cream sandwiches.

  15. Interessantes Thema. Bin zwar nicht ganz deiner Meinung, aber das ist ja auch kein Forum hier. Bleib am Ball.

  16. Can I use this product along with other weight control products?

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