The Secret Pool In The Woolworth Building

Recently, I had the pleasure of scouting the Woolworth Building, which, as far as I’m concerned, is as close as you can come to visiting a royal palace in New York.

wool (01)

From its towering vaulted ceilings…

wool (02)

…covered in unbelievably ornate mosaics…

wool (03)

…with details so small, you can barely catch them from the ground…

wool (03a) copy

…to its grand staircase…

wool (04)

…rear lit stained-glass ceiling…

wool (05)

…and beyond…

wool (06)

Entire volumes have been written about the history and construction of the building, so I won’t get into that here. But one of the reasons I love visiting the Woolworth lobby is that there’s always something new to discover.

On my last visit, for example, I noticed these tropical birds in the arches that I’d never seen before…

wool (08)

Barely visible from the ground, but so beautiful:

wool (08a)

In another corner…

wool (09)

…this fantastic, dragon-like creature – can someone identify it?

wool (09a)

I love the doors of the elevators…

wool (10)

…which almost make it feel like your stepping into a gilded leather book cover:

wool (11)

Even the mailboxes are dripping in ornamentation. Note the two W’s for Woolworth near the top…

wool (13)

But my favorite are the little salamanders crawling up vines on either side:

wool (14)

The Woolworth Building was designed in 1913 by Cass Gilbert…

…and if you look closely, you’ll find a caricature of him hidden near the ceiling, carrying the building itself:

wool (15)

But one thing I’ve always been really curious about is the marble pool said to still exist in the Woolworth basement.

pool

When the building opened in 1913, one of its selling points was a health club complete with indoor pool and Turkish bath, open “day and night.” The pool was indeed built, and remained open until 1999, when it was finally drained (and is currently available as part of a larger retail space). It took a trip down several staircases…

wool (16)

But there it was: the remains of the Woolworth pool.

wool (18)

Alert reader David found this photograph from 1915, just two years after the building opened (check out Vintage Everyday for more vintage photos).

nysuits

Here’s the same shot today:

addon

It’s an odd shape – long, but only about wide enough to accommodate two lanes of swimming. It really is amazing to think that nearly 100 years ago, New York’s elite were first dipping their toes in the water to test it out.

wool (21)

I’m no expert, but the railings look like marble to me:

marble

The pool is 7 feet at its deepest:

wool (19)

It’s really hard to find any information about the pool. By 1983, it was part of the Jack LaLanne health club at the location, and later still, a Bally’s. Below, a review from the 11/7/83 issue of New York magazine:

mabazine

It’s unclear whether this hot tub was a later addition, or part of the original Turkish bath set-up:

wool (23)

To date, I don’t think the Woolworth pool has ever been featured in film or print, which is really unfortunate. I get emails every week asking for unique abandoned locales to shoot beautiful models in (apparently, beautiful models love to hang out in abandoned locations in print advertising), and I really don’t think you can find a more interesting spot than the secret pool at the Woolworth Building. I’ve also been waiting for it to appear as a plot point in any of the dozen or so New York cop shows – seriously, think of the possibilities! – but nothing yet. Definitely shoot me an email if interested – the building is very film friendly.

The Woolworth building is not open to tourists, but keep an eye out on Open House NY – they’ve given tours in the past, and hopefully they’ll have another available this year.

-SCOUT

If you enjoyed reading this post, would you consider making a donation to help me make my first movie? Just $5 or $10 can make a difference - AND you get this snazzy Scouting NY sticker/magnet as a Thank-You gift! Click here to donate today!

try4

And hey, if you've made it this far, why not follow us via RSS, Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr?

49 comments

  1. Reminds me of the Fisher Building in Detroit. Very ornate, but not gaudy.

  2. Recent reports in the Real Deal said they are going to convert the upper floors of the building into private residences who will also have access to the gym/pool that will be built/restored in the basement.

  3. re: the “dragon”. I only see a cluster of holly or oak-like leaves gathered in a band. I can make out what might appear to be a Arcimboldo-type face, but it doesn’t appear to be that strong to me…

    • Melissa (oddharmonic)

      The “dragon” looked like an axolotl to me at first glance, but what I saw as eyes are more easily read as a dragon’s nostrils.

  4. Awesome! Thanks for the photos! I did the Open House tour a couple of years ago, and I was really hoping they’d take us down there. I was not so lucky, but it was still a treat to see portions of the most beautiful building in New York.

  5. I’ve been in the bldg (NOT the bsmt) in pre 9/11 days when I worked in the area. Absolutely wonderful!.

  6. This is utterly fantastic. Now I have to see it, if I can. Incidentally, Cass Gilbert was a Minnesotan whose career was here in the Twin Cities. He designed the State Capitol in St Paul. It, too, is lovely. Paul Manship, another St Paul guy, is responsible for the statue at 30 Rockefeller.

  7. This is apparently a photo of the pool in 1915: http://bit.ly/PyuguY

  8. astonishing!

  9. I actually used to work in at Bally’s that took over Jack La Lane’s space in that building during college… this completely brought back memories!

  10. Thanks Scout – my all time favorite building in NYC! Since I now live up here in Vermont, maybe you would be willing to post the date for the open house?

  11. My husband is a cameraman and is starting work ona documentary of the 100th (??) anniversary of Grand Central Station. Im sure there will be lots of hidden treasures in that place…I hear there are tennis courts, a pvt apartment, and an unsused presidential trainstation back from the Roosevelt era…that should be some show. It will air on ABC sometime his fall.

  12. I used to work in the old Tweed Courthouse in the late 1970s-mid 80s and also recall there being a bar/restaurant in the basement. I think in the 80s-90s it was Harry’s, but had another name in the 70s. Anyone recall it?

    • @r185, the restaurant was Miller’s Restaurant. I worked in the building and for FWW Co beginning around 1980. There was retail space accessible from both the street & the interior lobby, and I THINK subway access via the lower level. In those pre-9/11 days the entrances were all open to the public. That probably is marble on the pool as it looks like the same type that adorned the office corriders before they ripped everything out in the early 80’s. On a side note, the doorknobs on the old office doors had “W” ornamentation similar to the lobby mailboxes, as did the elevator banks on each floor. You can see the remains of the elevator trim in the Curbed link Lina posted above, it was once gold/brass toned.

  13. Wow, beautiful pictures! I’ve never been to the Woolworth Building but this post makes me want to go.

  14. If only the owners would allow access to the lobby of this building. It is one of the true jewels of this city and forbidden to most. Their “security” issue justification is just lame.

    • The lobby is protected by the Landmarks Commission and is considered a public space. For the “security” minded to keep out the hoi polloi is criminal.

  15. My guess would be the hot tub came later than the pool, just because of the stark differences in tile design.

    Beautiful, beautiful building. Real craftsmanship, like you never see now. Thank you for sharing the photos.

  16. As a swimmer and a former location scout, I subscribe to both your blog and the 40 pools blog on my RSS feed. I actually thought this was one of Hannah’s posts until I saw the pool had no water. Thought you might be interested in a fellow city scout of sorts: http://40pools.wordpress.com/ – She’s making an attempt to swim in all the NYC pools to celebrate her 40th birthday year.

  17. Hey Scout, I believe the building was featured in Enchanted with Amy Adams (Though parts were definitely reconstructed) and the Pilot of Ugly Betty was filmed there as well.

  18. I have to agree with Ed. Although it makes for a nice Rorschach test, the “dragon” is just a floral motif.

    There’s not a lot of information online about the designers of the mosaics, Heineicke and Bowen. Several redundant webpages refer to them as “prominent”, but you’d hardly know it doing a search.

    As much as I like the figure of Gilbert, I prefer the figure of F.W.W. himself, counting his nickels and dimes.
    http://tinyurl.com/8qmdtqd

  19. Wow — this is so amazing! It’s really something to think about how much work went into buildings like this, into the tiniest details that these days get completely overlooked (or not even thought of). Love your photos!

  20. I used to stop in to admire the Woolworth lobby every time I was downtown, but since it went condo a few years ago they will no longer let you in, even just to peek around. Oh well, another wonderful public space cordoned off for the richy-rich…

  21. They are going to convert the upper (I think the top 30) floors into freshly renovated residential quarters, and apparently the build has already started.
    There are some pictures of the gutting of the building, and some info on it here:
    http://ny.curbed.com/archives/2007/10/09/curbed_inside_the_woolworth_buildings_makeover.php

  22. In olden times, the security guards actually passed out descriptive brochures, highlighting the lobby’s special features. In addition to the Cass Gilbert caricature, the lobby includes similar portraits of the building’s structural engineer, grappling with a steel girder, Woolworth’s chief accountant, swept up in a swirl of adding-machine tape, and Woolworth himself, counting nickels and dimes.

    The grand staircase in the back of the lobby, whose details are somewhat more restrained, was the entrance to the Irving Trust Company, the building’s largest tenant in 1913. The building cost Frank Woolworth $13.5-million to build, and it was the tallest building in the world when it opened. Woolworth paid cash, and the building was never mortgaged until the Woolworth company sold it to a syndicate of investors in the 1990’s. O tempora! O mores!

  23. Well done, beautiful pictures!

  24. NYU has a continuing education center in the Woolworth Building. It’s accessed by a door on the side of the building so you can’t go through the lobby. However, the classrooms are on the mezzanine level and many of the rooms have windows that overlook the lobby. The grand staircase terminates at that floor (doors are locked, of course). You get great looks of the mosaic work from there.

  25. i worked in that building for woolworths for 8 years and never knew about it

  26. Doreen Willis-Bailey

    Wonderful pictures of a magnificent building! SO important that it is assured of preservation – and be available on at least one day a year for appreciative visitors. Well done! The photos are superb!

  27. I have been exploring for a little for any high-quality articles or weblog posts in this kind of area . Exploring in Yahoo I finally stumbled upon this site. Studying this information So i’m happy to show that I have an incredibly just right uncanny feeling I came upon exactly what I needed. I most undoubtedly will make certain to do not overlook this web site and provides it a look regularly.

  28. Dear Scout, I worked in the Woolworth Building from ’87 to ’95, and my office was located on the 40th floor in what was originally Frank Woolworth’s personal library/study. Those ceilings were magnificent and the wood panelling spectacular. At that time the pool was a Jack Lalane Health club.
    Thanks for these pix. Memory lane for me.

  29. I swam in the All-male pool and hot tub when it was Ballys, no swim trunks needed, just like the NY Athletic Club. Beautiful place!!
    Denis shaviannyc@aol.com

  30. I used to work at Jack LaLanne in this building back in the 80’s. I have not though about it for a very long time. It looks amazing here but honestly seeing these pick reminds me of The Shining when towards the end you start seeing all the not so great things that happened in the hotel.

    I was a 18 year old femal. This was right when the bath house closed at the beginning of the aids scare. I was young and dumb but of I had it all to do again knowing what I know now I would have got the hell out of there. Because of the size of the club we had to have what was called men’s and women’s days. It rotated every day. Men’s days at that time were absolutely unreal. Gay men as well as straight men looking for anonymous sex joined in droves. The sex was rampant. Everyday there were complaints of sex in the showers, pool, sauna, hot tub. It was unreal. It was out of control. That club was the new bath houses and everybody know it. Erections all over the place. I hate to think about it at my age of 46 now and living in Maryland burbs. There is nothing like having to approach an adult man at the age of 18 and address him regarding his having sex in the showers. Luckily I was a bodybuilder and pretty tough in my own mind.

    The place was also a depressing atmosphere. It is way way underground in the bowels of the building. Back then they would work us in 12 hour shifts. I would get there at 10am and leave after 10pm 6 days a week. No daylight. Slave labor. Women’s days were better because we didn’t have the issues with sex. We have several celebrity members and all clubs did and do have in Manhattan.

    About 3 years after I left there and was working at another club I became sick with a horrible cough that I could not shake for months. I was scared to go to the doctor because I was convinced I had gotten aids from Woolworth Jacks. Even as a virgin the place was full of pure nastiness and I was sure I got it from there. My sound rediculous but there was semen all ov the place. (Search references to sex at this club. It’s there). Come to find out I had Epstein bar which is way better than aids!

    Yeah…..memories I would just rather forget!

  31. @Denis. I worked there about 83-85. You may to have had worn trunks but that was the problem. It was a health club. Not a bath house! Nothing personal but what went on in that health club was absolutely shameful. It may have been beautiful for you but believe. Me it was not for many men who came there to work out and not be subjected to your naked body. Nothing wrong with the human physique (I know as a former competitive body build) but it was not a bath house!

    Gay men turned it into their own personal cesspool and they should certainly not be proud of it. This is a memory I have of gay men and their lack of regard for others when it came/comes to sex. Even in my 20’s I used to go to dance clubs and you could always find a couple of guys screwing in a dark corner.

    No one should be proud.

    • 1. The Ballys management obviously were thrilled that it *was* a bath house, because they didn’t stop the gay sex – even after the gay bath houses were shut down very publicly. It was a bath house. Don’t kid yourself.

      2. Just because some gay guys screwed at your bath house doesn’t mean all gay men do that. Any more than the grabby sexist men found in every bar mean that every hetero man does that.

      3. In my 20s I used to go to 1980s-1990s NYC dance clubs and never found a couple of guys screwing in a dark corner. I wasn’t looking for any. You?

  32. NY Times article The top floors of the Woolworth Building “will be turned into luxury condominiums…. An abandoned 55-foot-long basement swimming pool, originally part of a health club, will be restored as an amenity for residents.”

  33. I, too, had an immediate flashback upon seeing the pool. I’ll never forget my first time walking downstairs after working out and going to use the bathroom. There were several naked men having sex in the bathroom. At 22, in 1994, I was astounded and turned on at the same time. I only visited this area a few times, thinking each time it would be different, but more sex. As a mature man today, I realize how much shame is associated with being gay and how these men were looking for an outlet. And keep in mind, if men & women were allowed to shower together sex (or rape) would run rampant.

  34. Hey There. I discovered your blog the use of msn. This is a very smartly written article. I will make sure to bookmark it and come back to read extra of your useful info. Thanks for the post. I’ll definitely comeback.

  35. Actually the picture of the figure holding the building is the architect Cass Gilbert. Directly across from this figure is Woolworth himself counting dimes.

  36. Lol…as a student who’s taken classes at the Woolworth building for the past two years, I found this article entertaining and amusing. Nice pics though. :)

  37. I don’t think the hot tub was original as it doesn’t seem to appear in the floor plan here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/psulibscollections/5781884260/

  38. I used to swim in the Woolworth pool in 1983! I was a Kelly Temp and worked in the building. The Jack LaLanne guy used to let me ‘sneak in’ on Ladies Days (Tues and Thurs, I think.) There was hardly anyone there. In fact, some days I was the only one. Must be why he let me in without having a membership. It is a beautiful building (in the public areas.) By the 80s it was bad office design; all chopped up and the beauty of the building was sort of an after-thought.

  39. I worked for the Legal Dept for FWW from 1966 to 1969. A beautiful bldg and many retail stores and a restaurant in the lobby. many many wonderful memories.

  40. I worked for Jack LaLanne in the Woolworth Building from 1973 to 1975 and was a member there until leaving NYC in 1977. It was called the Executive Club and membership there cost a little extra. It was Men’s days Monday, Wed Friday and Saturday. Yes we worked 10 to 10 and 10 to 6 on Saturday. I once had to confiscate the membership cards of three guys who were “playing caboose” in the Eucalyptus Room. I still have one of their cards. Just days after coming to LA I ran Wadji, the lifeguard at the club at a party in Hollywood. He was the only man allowed in the club on ladies days!

  41. Hello! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering if you
    knew where I could find a captcha plugin for my comment form?

    I’m using the same blog platform as yours and I’m having difficulty finding one?
    Thanks a lot!

  42. My grandfather was a member ofthis health club in the late 1950’s through about 1970. As a child, I swam in the pool with all the old men, enjoyed a steam and then watch them toss medicine balls at each other. Judges, wall street types. A flood of good memories. Thanks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>