The astronomical motto of New York State — excelsior (literally “higher,” or, more figuratively, “ever upward”) — embodies both the dream and the danger of human achievement in its ambiguous message. In the promise of the dream, we strive to exceed our previous best as we reach upward, literally to the stars, and ethically to knowledge and the pursuit of happiness. In the warnings of danger, any narrowly focused and linear goal can drift, especially when our moral compass fails, into the zealotry of “true belief,” and thence to an outright fanaticism that brooks no opposition.
For all my conscious life, I have held one object close to my heart as both the abstract symbol and actual incarnation of this great duality: upward thrust tempered by frailty, diversity and contradiction. Let me then confess my enduring love affair with a skyscraper: the Woolworth Building, world’s tallest at 792 feet, from its opening in 1913 until its overtopping by the Chrysler Building (another favorite) in 1929. This gorgeous pinnacle on Lower Broadway — set between the Tweed Courthouse to the east (a low artifact of human rapacity) and, until the tragedy of September 11, the Twin Towers to the west (a high artifact of excelsior in all senses) — represents the acme in seamless and utterly harmonious blending of these two components that must unite to achieve the dream, but that seem so inherently unmixable.
The Woolworth Building surely reaches high enough to embody the goals of excelsior. But its lavish embellishments only enhance the effect, giving warmth, breadth, and human scale to the height of transcendence. The outer cladding of glowing terra cotta (not stone, as commonly stated) reflects the warmth of baked clay, not the colder gleam of metal. The overtly gothic styling of the lush exterior ornamentation marries an ecclesiastical ideal of past centuries with the verticality of modern life (thus engendering the building’s wonderfully contradictory moniker as “cathedral of commerce”). The glorious interior, with a million tiny jewels in a mosaic ceiling, its grand staircase, murals of labor and commerce, and elegantly decorated elevators, inspires jumbled and contradictory feelings of religious awe, technological marvel, and aesthetic beauty, sometimes sublime and sometimes bumptious. Meanwhile, and throughout, high grandeur merges with low comedy, as the glistening ceiling rests upon gargoyles of Mr. Woolworth counting the nickels and dimes that built his empire, and the architect Cass Gilbert, cradling in his arms the building that his image now helps to support.
When I was young, the Woolworth Building rose above all its neighbors, casting a warm terra cotta gleam over lower Manhattan. But I have not seen this optimally tempered glory since the early 1970’s because the Twin Towers, rising in utter metallic verticality just to the southwest, either enveloped my love in shadow, or consigned its warmer glow to invisibility within a metallic glare.
There can be no possible bright side to the tragedy of September 11 and the biggest tomb of American lives on any single day since the Battle of Gettysburg nearly 150 years ago. But the fact of human endurance and human goodness stands taller than 100 Twin Towers stacked one atop the other. These facts need symbols for support, so that the dream of excelsior will not be extinguished in the perverse utilization of its downside by a few evil men.
I returned to my beloved natal city, following an involuntary week in Halifax (as one of 9,000 passengers in 45 diverted airplanes on September 11), on a glorious day of cloudless sky. That afternoon, my family and I went to ground zero to deliver supplies to rescue workers. There, I experienced the visceral shock (despite full intellectual foreknowledge and conscious anticipation) of any loyal New Yorker: my skyline has fractured; they are not there! But then I looked eastward from the shores of the Hudson and saw the world’s most beautiful urban vista, restored for the worst possible reason, but resplendent nonetheless: the Woolworth Building, with its gracious setbacks, its gothic filigrees, and its terra cotta shine, standing bright, tall, and alone again, against the pure blue sky. We cannot be beaten if the spirit holds, and if we celebrate the continuity of a diverse, richly textured, ethically anchored past with the excelsior of a properly tempered reaching towards the stars.
When Marcel Duchamp moved from Paris to New York as a young and cynical artist, he also dropped his intellectual guard and felt the allure of the world’s tallest building, then so new. And he decided to designate this largest structure as an artwork by proclamation: “find inscription for Woolworth Bldg. as readymade” he wrote to himself in January, 1916.
The Reverend S. Parkes Cadman, dedicating the Woolworth Building as a “cathedral of commerce” at its official opening on April 23, 1913 (when President Wilson flipped a switch in Washington and illuminated the structure with 80,000 lightbulbs), paraphrased the last line of Wordworth’s famous Ode on the Imitations of Immortality in stating that this great edifice evoked “feelings too deep even for tears.” But I found the words that Duchamp sought as I looked up at this human beauty restored against a skyblue background on that bright afternoon of September 18. They belong to the poem’s first stanza, and they describe the architectural love of my life, standing so tall against all evil, and for all the grandeur and all the foibles of human reality and transcendence — “appareled in celestial light, the glory and the freshness of a dream.”
The Woolworth Building