The Skyscraper and the City (Hardcover)

The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York

By Gail Fenske

University of Chicago Press, 9780226241418, 400pp.

Publication Date: August 1, 2008

List Price: 81.00*
* Individual store prices may vary.


Once the world's tallest skyscraper, the Woolworth Building is noted for its striking but incongruous synthesis of Beaux-Arts architecture, fanciful Gothic ornamentation, and audacious steel-framed engineering. Here, in the first history of this great urban landmark, Gail Fenske argues that its design serves as a compelling lens through which to view the distinctive urban culture of Progressive-era New York.
Fenske shows here that the building's multiplicity of meanings reflected the cultural contradictions that defined New York City's modernity. For Frank Woolworth--founder of the famous five-and-dime store chain--the building served as a towering trademark, for advocates of the City Beautiful movement it suggested a majestic hotel de ville, for technological enthusiasts it represented the boldest of experiments in vertical construction, and for tenants it provided an evocative setting for high-style consumption. Tourists, meanwhile, experienced a spectacular sightseeing destination and avant-garde artists discovered a twentieth-century future. In emphasizing this faceted significance, Fenske illuminates the process of conceiving, financing, and constructing skyscrapers as well as the mass phenomena of consumerism, marketing, news media, and urban spectatorship that surround them.
As the representative example of the skyscraper as a "cathedral of commerce," the Woolworth Building remains a commanding presence in the skyline of lower Manhattan, and the generously illustrated Skyscraper and the City is a worthy testament to its importance in American culture.

About the Author

Gail Fenske is professor of architecture at Roger Williams University.

Praise For The Skyscraper and the City: The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York

"Fenske''s prose is academic but clear, enlivened by her interest in the cultural moment: Newspapers and magazines, she notes, started producing views of lower Manhattan''s cluster of skyscrapers -- the Woolworth most prominent among them -- as the city became known by ''the world''s first signature skyline.'' This is a definitive take on a 20th-century classic."—Nicholas Desai, Wall Street Journal
-Nicholas Desai

"The Skyscraper and the City . . . offers a new examination of the building and its significance in New York’s history. . . .   The book provides a new perspective on some of the most notable aspects of the Woolworth Building." —Sewell Chan, New York Times
-Sewell Chan, City Room Blog

“In this superb, deeply nuanced study, Gail Fenske weaves the complex processes, multiple collaborations, and competing agendas that combined to produce a single landmark into a compelling analysis of the interplay between architecture, consumer culture, and the dynamically changing city. Both sharply focused and broad in its implications, The Skyscraper and the City reveals as much about the modern urban landscape as it does about the Woolworth Building itself.”—Kate Solomonson, author of The Chicago Tribune Tower Competition

-Kate Solomonson, author of The Chicago Tribune Tower Competition

“Fenske’s impressively comprehensive, contextual, and deeply researched account of the making of the Woolworth Building weaves together the histories of the client, the architect, and the building itself, including design, construction, technology, and representation. It is also about the city, and no other architectural history reveals so well what it means to build a major commercial building in New York City.”

-Thomas Bender, author of The Unfinished City

“After nearly a century, the Woolworth Building has finally found a worthy chronicler.  In this book Gail Fenske describes the remarkable mix of architectural skill, business savvy and unbounded ambition that led to the creation of one of the largest and most conspicuous monuments of American 20th century culture. The story of businessman Frank Woolworth, his architect, Cass Gilbert, and the thousands of other individuals who came together to create this astonishing ‘cathedral of commerce’ is an absorbing and highly revealing tale, and Fenske tells it very well.”—Robert Bruegmann, author of Sprawl: A Compact History

-Robert Bruegmann, author of Sprawl: A Compact History

"This is a wonderful book: it is scholarly, well-written, beautifully illustrated . . . and utterly absorbing. . . . [The book] will delight anyone interested in real architecture, consumer culture and the urban landscape. In Fenske, the Woolworth Building has found a sympathetic and thorough chronicler, and her work is a monument in itself to the urban culture and admiration for things European . . . that existed before the catastrophe of 1914-18."

"Perhaps the best book ever devoted to a particular New York City building is Gail Fenske''s meticulously researched and exquisitely illustrated history of the Woolworth Building. . . . Fenske''s magnificent study is fully worthy of its subject. May both long endure."
-Peter Eisenstadt