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Bank Of America Move Will Empty A Financial Cornerstone Of Hartford

Kenneth R. Gosselin

April 16, 2010

When Hartford National Bank and Trust Co. erected the office tower on the corner of Main and Pearl streets in the mid-1960s, it was the second tallest building in the city, a symbol, the bank said, of its confidence in the city's future.

But amid the hoopla, the bank also had a well-trained eye on its past: Tucked within a corner of the 26-story tower, the state's oldest bank re-created Bull's Tavern. The tavern once stood on the same corner and was the spot where the bank was organized in 1792.

The long tradition of banking on the corner is now coming to an end, as Bank of America a far-removed successor bank to Hartford National prepares to move from 777 Main St. to CityPlace, a block away on Asylum Street.

Bank of America says the move is about finding the right lease at the right price and keeping jobs in the city.

"We certainly respect the history of the building," T.J. Crawford, a bank spokesman, said. "Our goal is to find the most cost-effective real estate solution to keep the most employees downtown."

Crawford wouldn't say how many bank employees work in the tower, citing a policy against disclosing worker counts at individual locations. But a person familiar with the operations said the number is about 400.

Bank of America sold the building in 2004 and now leases back 210,000 square feet, roughly half the tower. The other half of the building is empty, with the exception of a Bank of America branch in the lobby.

The Hartford National name has been largely absent from the city since the 1980s, when it merged with Connecticut National Bank, and used that name on the building and branches throughout the state.

Still, the tradition of banking at the corner of Main and Pearl lived on through a long march of mergers that raised the names of Shawmut, Fleet and, finally, Bank of America, in 2004 to the top of the building.

With each merger, the connection to Bull's Tavern became more removed, as more dominant partners from outside Connecticut assumed control.

"As far as the bank moving, it's been through so many iterations, I'd be surprised if they thought any of it was significant," historian William Hosley said. "In some sense, it's not their story."

Hosley, a longtime observer of downtown Hartford, said he understands that Bank of America has to look to the future, just as Hartford National did when it opened the Main Street tower in 1967.

But increasingly, he said, the connection to the past is being lost.

"The mind-set is very different now," Hosley said. "It's important that we look forward and back, and not just forward."

The age of the bank building makes the move to CityPlace attractive, partly because floor sizes are larger and in more modern configurations in the newer building. But the change also recognizes today's business realities that demand finding leasing options that keep expenses as low as possible.

Hartford National's storied history began with a group of men gathering at the tavern to form the state's first bank, simply named Hartford Bank. It was operated there until 1811, when it moved to a new building on State Street resembling a Greek temple.

The bank remained there for a century, until expansion forced it to move to the corner of Main and Asylum in 1912, just north of the old tavern and on the same block. It moved back to the corner of Main and Pearl in 1928 or 1933 depending on the historical account you read and into an existing, Second Empire-style building that had long since replaced the tavern.

That building was demolished to make way for the present tower.

In making its move, Bank of America will downsize dramatically to 60,000 square feet at CityPlace, suggesting that it had far more space on Main Street than it needed. The move will be completed by next March, when the bank's lease on Main Street expires.

The owner of 777 Main, Grunberg Realty, said it tried to strike a deal to keep the bank. The bank wouldn't disclose the terms of the CityPlace lease.

Michael Grunberg said he may revive a long-dormant plan to place condominiums in the upper floors, an idea he floated in 2006, shortly after he purchased the building.

He said he dropped those plans because Bank of America didn't want to move from those floors.

With the housing market showing some signs of recovery, the timing could prove right. But Grunberg will still have to deal with an empty building and attracting new commercial tenants to downtown Hartford is tough, even in better economic times.

Now, Grunberg said, there will be no restrictions on the options.

"We have," he said, "the opportunity of a blank slate."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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