By Sandee Wilhoit
Gone are the days when you could get something of value for five or 10 cents, but many of us remember wandering the illuminated aisles of Woolworth in search of the perfect piece of jewelery or gift to take home. at home. Once we were done shopping, we could satisfy our sweet tooth with an ice cream from Woolworth’s stainless steel lunch counter. Those days are over, but the charming Gothic building with its FW Woolworth signage remains – just waiting for the right merchant to bring it back to its prime.
Prior to the construction of the current building, the site housed the Gilbert block. Alonzo Horton transferred title to the lot to Alfred H. Gilbert in 1871. Gilbert had come to San Diego in 1868 and established the county’s first lumber business. He personally traveled up the coast to Humboldt Bay to select the best lumber cuts for San Diego homes and businesses. Unfortunately, Gilbert died in 1879 at the age of 46 from pneumonia. His only heir was his wife, Augusta. In 1886, it built what will be called the “Gilbert block”.
The Gilbert block was a three-story brick building with a timber frame and a central staircase with a large skylight above the stairs. The slate roof incorporated a fire wall, which rose 18 inches above the roof. There were 11 windows on the second and third floors with a wooden awning to the front and a brick chimney also to the front of the structure. Probably the most notable feature of the Gilbert block was the set of bay windows flanking the entrance.
The first floor was divided into retail stores, while the second floor was used for offices and the third floor housed furnished rooms.
The offices housed doctors, dentists and the real estate company Howard and Lyons. The first floor housed various businesses, including a grocery store, army, haberdashery, and several clothing retailers.
In 1922, the building was destroyed beyond repair by fire. However, Frank Winfield Woolworth, the main founder of the FW Woolworth Company of New York, had leased the land from Augusta Gilbert for fifty years at $10,000 a year several years before the fire. Woolworth, a stock boy, got his start when he suggested to his employers, dry goods merchants, Moore and Smith of Watertown, New York, that they put slow-moving, excess merchandise on the counter top and sell it for five cents. . Remarkably, the goods moved quickly and the store then began to display new merchandise on the counters. Five other stores were born from this counter experience. Woolworth then borrowed $300 from William Moore and opened his own dime store. Through a series of clever expansions and mergers, by 1912 Woolworth had purchased and consolidated 581 stores across the country and formed the FW Woolworth Company. He died in 1919, and by his death the company had reached annual sales of $100 million per year.
When Frank Woolworth died, his brother, Charles Sumner Woolworth, took over the company as chairman of the board and remained in that position until his retirement in 1944.
In 1922, the Woolworth Company then contracted Allan Macdonald and Felix Kahn of Los Angeles to build a new store on the Gilbert site for $125,000. It is widely believed that the architect was Cass Gilbert of New York, Woolworth’s corporate architect, as the San Diego store and New York flagship store embody many of the same elements and are designed in the same style. The New York store, opened in 1913, was the tallest building in the world until 1930. Both buildings were partially clad in terracotta, had granite bases, featured Corinthian columns and used large amounts of leaf gold ornaments inside.
The San Diego store was a three-story basement, fireproof reinforced concrete building with a neoclassical Roman facade of terracotta and gray granite. It featured four Corinthian-style pilasters and a composition roof with decorative brackets. The ground floor had two recessed entrances on Fifth Avenue with large bay windows on either side. The most notable feature of the interior was a profusion of massive electric light fixtures – the latest on 5th Avenue in New York City. The store space spanned over 10,000 square feet lined with modern glass display cases, gilt mirrors and posts, and additional handsome wooden countertops. A beautiful spiral staircase led customers to the second floor. Many shoppers said the store was better lit at night than during the day!
The exteriors of the second and third floors featured three sets of tripartite windows, each divided by decorative pilasters topped with medallions of roses. Each set featured a large central rectangular window flanked by a pair of smaller rectangular windows. The third story windows had a narrow frieze on the top of each window section, and the bottom of the roof support brackets feature a narrow strip of dentil molding.
This spectacular building was inaugurated on January 19, 1923, with great fanfare and the sound of a full orchestra! San Diego was thrilled!
For many years the company did strictly nickel-and-dimes business, but eventually incorporated stainless steel lunch counters and soda fountains. These same lunch counters became focal points for sit-ins during the turbulent civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s.
Woolworth’s continued to expand and eventually had stores in Canada, London and the Caribbean and South and Central America.
On a personal note, as a child, I looked forward to the semi-annual trips my grandmother and I made to Havana from our home in Oriente Province, so that we could shop for dollhouse furniture in the huge Woolworth’s in Havana. The attendant handed me a shopping basket and I filled it to the brim with miniature furniture and rubber babies. Even though I could barely see over the counters, I wasn’t too shy to ask for help to reach all those treasures. Alleys and aisles of treasures! Cuba eventually boasted eight Woolworth’s, but none could compare to Havana’s.
With expansion came diversification, and in 1963 Woolworth’s acquired the Kinney Shoe Corporation, which eventually created the Foot Locker stores that Woolworth’s would become. Growth and expansion, along with the rise of suburban malls, ultimately contributed to its downfall. In 1997, Woolworth’s closed all of its remaining stores in the United States.
The San Diego store was seismically retrofitted in 2001, and steel beams, elevators, and more stairs were added. It reopened as retail at street level and living/working lofts on the second and third floors.
A little brevity was added, circa 2015, when a comedy club opened for a short time.
The building is now for sale.
The Woolworth Building
945 Fifth Avenue
Architectural style: Roman neoclassical
Architect: Cass Gilbert of New York
Building contractors: Allan Macdonald and Felix Kahn
— Sandee Wilhoit is the historian and senior guide at the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation. She can be contacted at [email protected]