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Recalling An Earlier ‘Twin Towers’

Published: September 10, 2011

Rather than give any more attention to the people who attacked New York 10 years ago, I wanted to recognize a man who helped give the city its reputation for sky-scraping towers.

Louis J. Horowitz, a developer in the first decades of the 20th Century, embodied the spirit of towering achievement. Arriving in New York in 1892, he came to the States with little more than burning ambition. Beginning as an errand boy earning $3 a week, he would later go on to build New York’s Equitable Building and Waldorf Astoria hotel, and, in 1910, the Woolworth Building. For 20 years, this masterwork would remain the world’s tallest building at 792 feet and a then-astounding 57 stories.  Here is Horowitz’s story, as told in the pages of the Post in 1936:

For a while in that period, I could afford only two meals a day. For breakfast I would get coffee and two doughnuts—these cost only a nickel, but they filled me up. At night I would go to a restaurant where, for fifteen cents, I could get a dish of meat and potatoes and help myself to the bread that was placed on the table. I was always hungry, and I was becoming thinner with each day. I had been delicate for some years, so the wonder is that I lived. As winter came on, time after time, with teeth chattering, I would arise from beneath thin coverings to find that the water in the pitcher on the washstand had turned to ice.

Joseph Pennel's 1908 drawing of the Waldorf-Astoria.(Library of Congress)

By hard work and diligently saving for seven years, Horowitz scraped together $2,000. This, along with a loan for $7,000 enabled him to finance the construction of his first apartment, which he later sold for a profit of $5,000

His success and reputation for ethical work eventually helped him win contracts to build New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel and the Equitable Building (pictured above), which, in an event that would weirdly presage the later attack on the World Trade Center, was  struck by an errant missile in 1942. But his greatest achievement was the construction, in 1910, of the Woolworth Building, which remained the world’s tallest building for 20 years. At 792 feet, its 57 stories stretched so high above Manhattan that its upper floors were lost in clouds.

Its construction posed challenges that Horowitz never faced before.

I remember that the steel members were of such heavy weight that we had to survey the routes over which they were to be hauled to the site. We wanted no cave-ins! Below the surface of New York streets, there is a deep and complex mechanical jungle. Raw power in the form of electricity, steam, and gas, is channeled just under all the city’s [traffic]… likewise, down there is a root-like system of wires, pipes and larger tubes that provide means for the transport of everything from the human voice to the human body. We had to give thought to gigantic water mains, subterranean railroads, vaulted sewers… Some of that sub-surface structure lies almost as deep in the rock under New York as the Woolworth Building rises above it.
What we were going to do was to build into the air a structure of equal complexity. Our water supply was to be a vast fountain; our vertical sewer system as large as that of a small town; our railroads—the elevators—were vertical, too.
Scaffolds and hoisting engines of the kind we needed did not exist; we had to create them. Equipment had to be devised to lift loads which never before had been lifted, and to lift them to unprecedented heights. [We had to hoist] all material halfway and then relay it to a second hoisting machine to lift it higher.

Surprisingly, Horowitz was uncomfortable with the idea of skyscrapers, which he considered monuments to personal egos.

The Woolworth Building in 1912.(Library of Congress)

Throughout my career as a builder, I argued… the immorality of uncommonly big buildings. It should be obvious that an extraordinarily large building poaches sunlight and air from smaller neighbors. [Other cities] do not permit the construction of buildings so large that they would hog a disproportionate share of the water supply, sewers, sunlight, air, and transport.
Socially, the gigantic buildings are, to my way of thinking, quite wrong… it would be utterly impossible to cover [even 30%] of Manhattan with tall buildings. The streets could not take care of the traffic of such buildings. The water supply would be inadequate, and the sewers, too. The sidewalks would become a solid mass of suffocating humanity. Such a piece of foolishness is unthinkable, and, anyway, there are not enough people to serve as tenants.
No city was ever meant to contain the buildings of fabulous size—fifty, sixty, seventy stories and more—that have been attached like monstrous parasites to the veins and arteries of New York. Those who create such buildings, in my opinion, are taking an unfair advantage of their neighbors, of their fellow property owners, of their fellow citizens.

Horowitz couldn’t have foreseen how New York, and its population would continue to grow. Just as he couldn’t have imagined that skyscrapers would someday inspire fear and envy among fanatics.

But in the wake of 9/11, he wouldn’t have been surprised by the construction of the new One World Trade Center. When completed in 2013, it will be the world’s tallest office building (and able to withstand the impact of a 747). He probably would have been proud to see the beacon atop its spire, at 1776 feet, flashing out the city’s energy, resolve, and defiance to the world.

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  • Ima Ryma

    The Woolworth Building, that’s my name,
    Labeled Cathedral of Commerce.
    Built to world’s tallest building fame.
    It was my blessing, not my curse.
    Cost fourteen million 1910.
    Frank paid my bill upfront in cash.
    New York City’s giant back then,
    They’d elevate me in a flash.
    I’ve watched others rise above me,
    And I do wish all of us well.
    We’re all just one big family
    Together in heaven or hell.

    I once was pictured ‘tween the Twins.
    They fell from 9/11 sins.

  • Shirley T. Abbott

    This is quite an interesting article with many facts of which I was unaware! Thank you for publishing all this good information about someone who obviously had a great impact on New York’s beautiful skyline and how it appears today!!!

  • Sharon Cranford

    Makes one proud of anyone coming from without anything to achieve his American Dream. His type are what made the “American Dream”.