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Talks Raise Hopes For Saving 1926 Building

By KENNETH R. GOSSELIN, Courant Staff Writer

January 12, 2008

The Hartford has applied for a permit to demolish the former MassMutual headquarters on Asylum Hill, but the insurer will soon seek development proposals for the 16-acre site that could save all or part of the historic structure.

How much of the building is preserved will depend on whether developers can successfully incorporate the structure into a plan that also addresses The Hartford's needs for parking and for donating a portion of the property for a magnet school, Joshua King, a spokesman for The Hartford, said Friday.

The Hartford announced last month that it had an agreement to buy the MassMutual building on Garden Street, just across the street from its corporate campus. The insurer had been talking with the building's owners for months, seeing the potential for meeting the anticipated parking needs of its employees.

The investment in the city was praised, but preservationists were caught off guard. While not protected by any federal, state or local historic designation, the building has historic value by virtue of its place in the development of the city's insurance industry and the grand, Georgian Revival-style architecture of the original, 1926 portion of the building, they said.

The original building was the headquarters of the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co., which expanded from an initial, 25,000 square feet to 425,000 square feet over decades. MassMutual acquired Connecticut Mutual in 1996 and later moved out of the city.

The building has been vacant for three years. In 2006 it was purchased by a partnership of two real estate companies that has been unable to find tenants.

Since last month, The Hartford has met with preservationists and neighborhood leaders on Asylum Hill, some as recently as Thursday. Some who have met with the company say they are encouraged that a compromise will be found, preserving "some or all" of the structure.

The Hartford has not disclosed how much it has agreed to pay for the property. The sale is contingent upon the company's securing state and local approvals, including the demolition permit.

King said The Hartford applied for the demolition permit Wednesday. The insurer is moving quickly because it wants approvals in place once it selects a development proposal and purchases the property. There is a 90-day public comment period and then another 30 days for the city to approve or deny. The permit is good for 6 months but can be extended.

Developers will be encouraged to consider three options: incorporating just the original 1926 structure, distinguished by a Corinthian-style portico and an atrium adorned with limestone pilasters and a marble floor; incorporating the original structure, plus some or all of the later additions; or using none of the building, King said.

King stressed that the proposals must be "economically feasible" and meet The Hartford's goals for the property. King said meetings in the community have produced a "very good dialogue and discussion."

On Thursday, the insurer met with officials at the Hartford Preservation Alliance and last week, members of the Neighborhood Revitalization Zone in Asylum Hill.

Laura Knott-Twine, executive director of the preservation alliance, said Friday that The Hartford has given the alliance a role in the "planning process" for the project.

Knott-Twine said the insurer has agreed to hear comments from the alliance on the development proposals. The alliance will also advise on the use of historic tax credits to defray redevelopment costs and help find developers who are sensitive to preservation, she said.

No promises were made, and The Hartford will have the final say, said Knott-Twine, who said she will be in frequent contact with the company.

In Asylum Hill, support is growing for incorporating at least part of the building into any future plans for the site.

Bernie Michel, chairman of Asylum Hill's neighborhood revitalization zone, said it appears to be a slim possibility that the entire structure will be saved. What's more likely and financially realistic is preserving the portion of the building that dates to 1926.

"The idea of taking down part but doing it in an architecturally sensitive way may be best," Michel said.

The neighborhood group has campaigned against a proliferation of parking lots, which are desolate at night and invite crime.

Knott-Twine said preserving the MassMutual building is a bigger issue than saving the structure itself.

"With each major building we lose," Knott-Twine said, "you may set up the loss of the next one."

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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