Monday, December 31, 2012

Architecture & Commerce: Cathedral of Commerce

I am composing this post on New Year's Eve. With the Christmas season still fresh on my mind and my wallet depleted of cash, what better time to write a post looking at the connection between architecture and commerce.

General Store
In 19th century America, commerce was predominately local. The county was vast and transportation networks were still fairly primitive. The resulting movement of goods was limited. Produce and materials were produced and consumed on a local level. General stores were the common venue for commerce but these vernacular buildings were not generally considered "architecture".
Carson Pirie Scott Building

If one looks through Gardner's Art Through the Ages, one might observe that all of the works of architecture cited prior to the 20th century consisted of castles, civic structures, palaces, sacred buildings, and the like. By the turn of the 20th century more common building types became subjects of interest to architects. It was not until the Carson Pirie Scott building of 1904, designed by Louis Sullivan in Chicago, that Gardner cited a retail building. Compared to its masonry neighbors, the steel framed building featured large horizontal expanses of glass. This allowed merchandise to be prominently displayed and permitted daylight to flood deep into core of the building. The lower facade was intricately and carefully detailed in what we now call the Art Nouveau style.

While Carson Pirie Scott may have distinguished itself as high architecture, the Woolworth Building of 1913, designed by Cass Gilbert in Manhattan, went even further. Not only was this a work of high architecture, it also demonstrated a connection between architecture and commerce, certainly better than any building to date (and perhaps better than any building since). The building was designed in the gothic style. Gilbert was quoted as saying the gothic style allowed him "the possibility of expressing to the greatest degree of aspiration . . . the ultimate note of the mass gradually gaining in spirituality the higher it mounts."  Readily apparent are the medieval gothic detailing of arches, spires, and gargoyles which Gilbert used as a device to reinforce the soaring verticality of the building, the world's tallest building from the time of its completion until 1930. By designing the skyscraper in the gothic style, the style most closely associated with the cathedrals of western Europe, Gilbert and Woolworth elevated commerce to religious status.

The Woolworth Building
After attending a couple of semesters of college Frank W. Woolworth then worked as a stockboy in a general store. There he came up with the concept for a five and dime store. His vision and carisma carried him far. He amassed a great fortune through his nationwide network of five and dime stores. Far from living up to his miserly reputation, Woolworth spared no expense in the design and construction of his world headquarters. This is cleverly expressed by in the gargoyles Gilbert designed for ornate marble lobby, one of which shows Woolworth counting his nickels and dimes.  The final tab of the building was $13.5 million, which Woolworth paid in cash.

F. W. Woolworth gorgoyle

The combination of the styling, the richness of the detailing, the lavishness of the interior, and the evangelistic message of the client, all led to moniker "cathedral of commerce". This moniker, originally coined by a visiting Londoner, was quickly adopted by Woolworth and used in its advertisements.  The connection between architecture and advertising, however, is not the subject of this post.  That is reserved for the next post, Mad Architects.

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