On Topic: "1913" presents business leaders who built skyscrapers as testimonials

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March 28, 2014 | 6:01 pm

Guy Delisle, in “Pyongyang,” his cartoon travelogue detailing his time as an animator in North Korea, tells how he was whisked immediately upon his arrival at the airport to visit a 72-foot-tall bronze statute of Kim Il Sung.

Delisle already had been provided a bouquet of flowers by his guide to lay at the feet of the longtime leader of the so-called hermit kingdom.

I was reminded of this anecdote about the monuments erected to the revered as I read Charles Emmerson’s fascinating “1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War.”

The historian’s sprawling book takes into account “a time before disenchantment” in that moment just ahead of the “great” war.

As he suggests many parallels between 1913 and 2013, Emmerson notes how easy travel had become. The world then, he writes, had been shrunk by “distance-destroying innovations of technology” that helped smooth the flow of “goods, money and people.”

The globalization of business — 92 years before Thomas Friedman declared our planet was flat — was already a going thing.

And so business leaders built tributes to themselves to put the best face forward for their brands. They constructed skyscrapers as symbols of their commerce and confidence.

On April 24 of that year, President Woodrow Wilson — inaugurated only one month before — pressed a button in the White House that switched on the electric lights for the new Woolworth Building in New York City, some 200 miles distant.

At 792 feet and intended as “a permanent advertisement” for the stores of the same name, the Woolworth Building was the tallest structure in the metropolis that set “the pace of the country’s economic life.”

Here’s how Emmerson describes the Gothic Revival-style edifice:

The ceiling of the Woolworth Building evoked Byzantine mosaics, while its marble floor was hewn from a quarry on the Greek island of Skyros. … The building accordingly became known as the “the cathedral of commerce … .”

Not everyone was delighted, and one newly established commission complained that the Woolworth’s shadows blocked daylight to other, shorter office sites.

But over time, the author contends, it and other skyscrapers would come to be esteemed as “the quintessentially American building.”

And the entrepreneur who commissioned it? Emmerson dismisses Frank Winfield Woolworth as “the founder of a chain of cheap stores across the United States.”

Woolworth had opened his first store in 1879 in Utica, N.Y., with $300 he’d borrowed. By 1911, when he incorporated his company, he boasted 586 shops. It eventually grew to be one of the largest retailers in the world.

Today, less-judgmental baby boomers will recall the ubiquitous F.W. Woolworth five-and-dime from their childhoods, and its successor, Woolco, an attempt at a big-box discount chain. The company lives on in the United States as Foot Locker, the athletic-shoe shops.

The Woolworth Building still stands, too. Maybe it’s no longer an endorsement of a once-famous brand, or remembered a testimony to self-promotion.

But, Emmerson implies, it could be viewed as part of a “more straightforward, more moral time.”

Which is a view, as his book underscores, that only can be gained in hindsight.

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