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American Architectural Wonder: Keep Out

Closing a building’s lobby to the public hardly counts as a corporate malfeasance worthy of prosecution, but it does make for selfish corporate policy. And the Witkoff Group, owner of New York’s Woolworth Building since 1998, has selfish corporate policy in the extreme. In prohibiting the public from viewing its lobby, it’s blocking it from seeing firsthand one of the most beautiful and important 20th-century public spaces in American architecture.

The Woolworth Building, designed by Cass Gilbert and commissioned by Frank W. Woolworth, owner of the dime-store chain, is a New York City Neo-Gothic marvel. At just over 790 feet, it was the tallest building in the world when it was completed in 1913, although it would hold that record for only a few minutes. The Chrysler Building (completed in 1930) and then the Empire State Building (completed in 1931) turned it into just another tiny tower, albeit an awfully pretty one. From the moment it was completed, however, it was loved both for its external terra-cotta tiled beauty and its gorgeous marble, bronze and mosaic lobby. It didn’t take long for it to be dubbed “The Cathedral of Commerce.”

Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, the lobby has been closed to visitors. A sign stands discreetly outside the revolving doors prohibiting people from entering the lobby. It reads, “Tourists Are Not Permitted Beyond This Point Thank You—Building Management.”

On impulse, I decided to test whether the Witkoff Group, which this past year began turning the Woolworth into multiple super-high-end commercial spaces instead of completing their original plans to turn it into multiple super-high-end residences, were serious about their sign. After stepping inside the lobby, I went to the reception desk and inquired why it was that tourists couldn’t visit the lobby. “Because the owners want it that way,” was the answer. “But why?” I asked. “Because of 9/11.” When I remarked that there were lots of other buildings that had gone through 9/11 and hadn’t closed their lobbies as a result, I was ordered to leave the premises immediately. “Ma’am,” one of the three guards said to me, “You’re trespassing. As of this moment you are being escorted from the building.” (While a burly woman walked me back to the revolving doors that led out to Broadway, my imagination leapt to a photo of me, in handcuffs, in a space just below the fold of the Times Metro section.)

Aside from the extraordinary rudeness of the Woolworth Building’s personnel, the closed lobby policy stuck in my craw. I followed up my visit with an email to the Witkoff Group, thinking they must care enough about the public to have a more formal explanation for their policy than, “Get out.” No response.

This is a famous skyscraper and a registered National Historic Landmark building. To me, the latter words ought to translate into something meaningful—oh, I don’t know, something like, “The public is welcome.” But they don’t. An NHL building means next to nothing. It’s a “designation” that recognizes “properties that are important to the entire nation,” and are “listed in the National Register of Historic Places.” The owners of National Historic Landmarks are “free to manage their property as they choose, provided no federal license, permit or funding is involved.” The Witkoff Group, in other words, like any corporation, has every right to keep tourists out of their lobby.

But that doesn’t mean that as owners of an American architectural wonder they don’t have an obligation to welcome visitors, or that in not feeling or exercising any responsibility to share their landmark with the public, they aren’t acting like corporate jerks.

Compare their policy to that of The Empire State Building (also an NHL building), whose Web site states: “When you walk up to the desk in the main lobby, expect the person at the Information Desk to smile and say, ‘Welcome to The Empire State Building! How may I help you?’” Or consider Chicago’s Wrigley Building (another NHL building). When I visited there last fall, the guards handed me pamphlets with information about the building and invited me to wander around the lobby.

For the Witkoff Group to use the terrorist attacks as an excuse for preventing people from entering their famous lobby is sleazy pseudo-patriotism. The Empire State Building and The Wrigley Building also went through 9/11, and are just as likely to be targeted by terrorists as the Woolworth Building. We all live in the post-9/11 world, but that doesn’t mean we should turn into mealy cowards who consider “tourists” and “the public” to be dangerous to society.

I think the Witkoff Group just plain doesn’t give a damn. Corporate selfishness is part and parcel of many corporations nowadays. How many of them have directors like Bill Gates, who think philosophically about how big money’s power fits into a healthy body politic? Still, it’s ironic that the Witkoff Group’s Web site asserts that it “takes a relationship-oriented approach to all levels of the firm’s business activities.” Stupid me. I would have thought that meant I could visit their famous lobby.

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