I can't express enough how little I knew about this building before walking in the front doors. It was my freshman year in college and I had moved down to NYC the month before. Most people exploring the city were not willing to share any information with me, so every time I entered a building or tunnel it was truly a mystery. Luckily, I had met a good crew of guys that were equally motivated to explore and push the boundaries of New York City. This particular evening I had attempted a Brooklyn rooftop with two friends, Zxndr and Robin. After getting up successfully, we were surprised minutes later by a group of younger explorers monkeying around on the beams that rested on the rooftop. Seeing that this would likely end in them being spotted, we decided to leave and let them face the consequences. Frustrated and still hungry for a nice view, Zxndr and I met up with our friends Visional and Jules to scheme.
Eventually we decided to try a construction site in the Financial District of Manhattan. After an hour or so of failure, we walked away disappointed and even more frustrated than before. Visional had a hotel for the night nearby, and it was already well past midnight, so we started to head back there to call it a night. On the way, Zxndr recommended we walk by the lobby of Woolworth.... Why not right?
To our surprise we saw nobody in the fancy lobby. After a quick chat, we decided to head on in, not sure what to expect. As we walked into the lobby we could hear someone hidden behind the high walled desk, playing games of some sort. Sure enough, as we got to the front desk we could see a security guard leaned forward at his desk, playing a shooter game on his smart phone. We kept walking by him towards the elevators, and fortunate for us he didn't look up from his game. The elevator made a loud ding as it arrived at the lobby, so we hustled in and quickly hit the highest floor available. The adrenaline really kicked in at this point, as we had made it into one of the most iconic buildings in New York. Trying to keep it cool, we got off on a floor in the mid 20's. Following exit signs to the stairs we found 2 different doors to choose from. Unfortunately, they both had magnetic alarms in the corner. We also noticed that the entire time spent looking for the stairs we had been on camera. Beginning to think that this was going to be another failure, I decided to make a desperate call to my friend Corey, who had been to the roof once before. Surprisingly, he was awake at the late hour, and told me a floor that had a door with a broken alarm. Sure enough, he had hooked us up real good. Noting the floor, we started to go up the stairs towards the roof.
At the time, Woolworth was undergoing some serious construction. The lower office floors were open, but the higher floors were all under construction. The four of us transitioned to the construction floors and tip-toed higher and higher. When we reached the pent house we came across a desk with a computer monitor and some paperwork. The computer was still running and we started to get the feeling that someone could be up there with us. From that point on, there was only metal scaffolding leading upward. Not ideal, as it was loud as all hell, but we had no choice. When we got to the top of the first set of scaffolding we felt some fresh air. Looking around, we found a miniature doorway that led us out onto the second of three penthouse decks. Excited to finally be up, we decided to shoot this deck first, before heading up to the highest level.
As we shot, Visional and I found ourselves on one side, while Zxndr and Jules were off on their own taking pictures. I was walking by a window looking into the penthouse, and through the hole in the ground, saw movement down below us. Immediately, I told Visional and we set out to find the others. Hoping that they were not inside. We briefly panicked as we couldn't seem to find Jules. Eventually he came around the corner of the building and told us he had heard people while he was shooting the inside of the penthouse. The four of us discussed what to do. Had people come up to look for us? We didn't know for sure. What we did know, was that getting back in this building was going to be a pain. So, all of us agreed that to camp out on the deck until just before sunrise. Then we would make the final climb up to the highest deck, as the sun rose. Jules, Visional, and I tried our best to sleep in the cold and windy weather. Zxndr stayed up taking a few pictures and watching a hawk fly around. After sleeping on and off for a few hours, we were all woken by the hawks loud screeches.
It was time to make the final climb. As quietly as possible we went up a set of stairs that led to the base of more scaffolding. The scaffolding brought us up to a spiral staircase... or what remained of one. With nearly half the steps missing, and only four metal chains securing it, you could barely call it a staircase. Carefully, we maneuvered the scaffolding and remaining stairs up to the final penthouse balcony. Luckily, the camera up top was unplugged so we didn't have to stress. After high fives all around, we spread out to shoot the crazy view. Sunrise was amazing, and although my photographs definitely don't do it justice, I'll always remember that morning.
In our rush to get out on the deck and shoot the sunrise, none of us noticed the ladder that would have brought us even higher, above the deck. As we left, we noticed it, but decided that we should leave ASAP. Maybe next time?
The way out, things got a little spicy. Thanks to some quick thinking, we made it out. Here is what happened.
As we descended down the scaffolding to the deck we had slept on, we heard noises coming from below us. Worried, we had no choice but to creep down the last set of scaffolding. To our surprise, there was a worker sitting at the desk we had seen on our way up. However, he was fast asleep... Until the four of us made far too much noise on the loud metal scaffolding and scared the living shit out of him. The man began questioning us immediately, but before he could finish, I began explaining that we were NYU students. Zxndr chimed in with a brilliant line, that likely saved our asses from either a gnarly escape, or a shitty morning at the precinct. He calmly told the security that we were up on the roof taking pictures with our photography teacher, and that he was still up there if the guy wanted to ask any questions. Sure enough, the security guard turned around and went up the scaffolding to question our imaginary teacher. Trying not to run, we briskly walked to the stairs, passing a few confused workers on their way to work on the penthouse. As soon as we got by them, we began to fly down the stairs as fast as humanly possible after very little sleep. By the time we reached the floor with no alarm on the door, we were all breathing heavily. However, we were not out yet. The pressure only built as the elevator slowly crept back to the ground floor. Ding, the elevator doors opened back up to the lobby, and this time the security at the desk was not focused on his game. With as much confidence as we could muster, the crew walked towards the doors, praying that the security guard wouldn't have gotten a call and try to stop us. Lucky for us, they had no clue what we had been up to, and a second guy even held the door for us as we left.
Turning the corner, we all hit a light jog, and jumped up and down celebrating. At the time this seemed like the craziest thing I had ever had to get on a rooftop. Shout out to the three guys that contributed to this crazy memory. Happy to say they all still explore now, and are doing far crazier stuff than Woolworth!
As a follow up, I think that it is worth noting that two years later the Woolworth Building finally re-opened the upper floors to people with far too much money on their hands. They also put the penthouse up for sale at the insane price of $79 million dollars. Fortunately, nobody has bought the penthouse yet, and floors 50-58 of Woolworth remain unused. As a result, I have made several return visits, and even spent the night a second time, in the finished penthouse. Tom D and I convinced Usrnameinvalid to come out of retirement and spend a windy summer night up in the newly finished penthouse. We drank some beers, watched some random fireworks, and listened to a concert down at Pier 17 that echoed across downtown Manhattan. I'll share a few photographs from my return visits below.
Oh, and whoever buys that penthouse one day, you're an asshole.