Things to Do in NYC: Woolworth Building Tours

Uncover the Hidden Treasures Inside Downtown's "Cathedral of Commerce"

woolworth_0172--2.jpg
Photo credit: Woolworth Tours

Once the tallest building in the world (when it debuted in 1913 until the title was taken by the Chrysler Building in 1930), this soaring, 60-story, neo-Gothic "cathedral of commerce" still awes onlookers more than a century later. Built to house the Manhattan offices of the five-and-dime chain store empire headed by Frank W. Woolworth, the steel-framed, terra-cotta-clad architectural masterpiece was designed and realized by architect Cass Gilbert.

The building's richly ornamented edifice is in itself a work of art, showcasing spires, gargoyles, and flying buttresses, but some of its most ornate details and artistic treasures lie within its cathedral-like interior, complete with a dazzling landmarked lobby (marked by marble, mosaics, and murals).

Due to security concerns for the busy office tower (with luxury top-floor condos upcoming), the interiors of the privately owned building had been off-limits to visitors, but, luckily, recently reinstated tours allow guests to now catch a glimpse of the treasures tucked inside.

Who Runs the Tours?

Tours are run by Woolworth Tours, which is owned and operated by a brother-and-sister team, the great-grandchildren of the building's architect, Cass Gilbert. Several guides lead the tours themselves, including historians, authors, and former New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission workers, all of whom have studied the Woolworth Building extensively.

What Will I See on the Tours?

There are three public guided tour options, in 30-, 60-, and 90-minute increments—descriptions below are provided by the tour company:

  • 30-minute guided lobby tours provide time to see the building’s gorgeous lobby, take photographs, hear a brief history of the building’s construction and its terra-cotta exterior, and a short time for questions.
  • 60-minute guided lobby tours provide more information about the history and construction of the building and its owner and architect. Learn about many of the building’s unusual features, including the exterior terra-cotta and the interior’s unique landmarked lobby.
  • 90-Minute guided lobby tours include a detailed look at the building’s exterior, an in-depth exploration of the lobby, including its ornamentation, staircases, and a special visit to the mezzanine for a unique perspective on this spectacular space and an up-close view of its gorgeous mosaic ceiling. Tours also include a brief walk to the Broadway-Chambers building.

    Private and custom tours for groups and individuals can also be arranged by Woolworth Tours.

    Note that tours concentrate largely on the landmarked lobby arcade, and don't venture much further into the tower nor up to the roof (the observation deck has been closed for many years).

    Where Are the Best Views of the Exterior?

    Whether or not you take the tour, be sure to take some time to admire the building's facade. Get your cameras ready, and crane your neck at the grand tower from City Hall Park, just across Broadway. Tip: The park's bubbling fountain looks lovely in the foreground of any Woolworth Building shot.

    How Can I Book? 

    Check out the full tour schedule and book tickets at woolworthtours.com—spots must be booked in advance (walk-ins will not be accepted). Note that there are no tours scheduled on Mondays, and children under 10 are not permitted to attend. Photos are allowed, but flash and video are prohibited. 233 Broadway, between Park Pl. & Barclay St.