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.