Opened 100 years ago when President Woodrow Wilson pushed a button that lit up every floor at once, the steel-frame Woolworth Building in Lower Manhattan not only had a spectacular birth; it was arguably the first quintessentially American skyscraper. Financed with cash, built on the back of Frank Woolworth’s retail empire and topping out at 792 feet, the building was for decades the world’s tallest. (The Eiffel Tower, meanwhile, for years remained the world’s tallest free-standing structure.)
Cass Gilbert, Woolworth’s architect on the project, was a pioneer. While steel frames had been used by designers like Daniel Burnham in Chicago, Gilbert broke new ground with his highly decorative terra-cotta cladding techniques. And Woolworth was certainly looking for groundbreaking.
“Woolworth wanted a building that looked like the Victoria Tower in London,” Gail Fenske, author of The Skyscraper and the City and co-curator of the current exhibition on the building at The Skyscraper Museum, tells TIME. “He [wanted] to produce something that was very showy, something that captured people’s attention.”
Gilbert certainly delivered. The result was not just a fusion of different styles, but a throughly modern building. To this day, the Woolworth somehow manages to evince the gravitas of a church and the playfulness, and the irreverence, of a child’s fantasy castle. Indeed, while its flying buttresses nod to Gothic cathedrals and everywhere one sees references to Beaux Arts grandiosity, in a wonderfully self-referential move by Gilbert, its lobby famously contains marble sculptures of Woolworth—one of which represents the retail magnate clutching a miniature version of the building itself.