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'Boat Building' Recognized As Historic

February 9, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, Courant Staff Writer

It is a two-sided, green-glassed, dominating structure affectionately known as the "boat building."

Now, just over 40 years after it opened, the Hartford headquarters of The Phoenix Companies Inc. has something else to be known for: a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

In October, the State Historic Preservation Board nominated the Phoenix building for the recognition. Late last month, the register officially put the building on its list, company officials announced Tuesday.

It is somewhat unusual for a building just 42 years old to be placed on the register, but architects say it's form makes it noteworthy.

"You have to remember, we've grown to loathe most of the modern buildings," Hartford architect Tyler Smith said. "I think what you're seeing now is a growing appreciation for some of the best of the early modernist work that heretofore had been thrown out on the scrap heap."

He added, "I'm glad it's being recognized. It's worth it, and it's a real Hartford landmark."

Architect Max Abramovitz designed the building, which opened in 1963. He was known for designing the United Nations and Lincoln Center buildings in New York city.

Hartford architect Patrick Pinnell said the building arrived at the tail end of an era in which rectangular, modern, glass boxes were falling out of favor. Architects thought of ways to use materials differently, Pinnell said, and then looked again at form.

"The boat building was one of the pioneering ways of breaking out of the box, not so much by changing the skin as by changing the structural shape of it," Pinnell said.

The building also is a testament to 1960s-era corporate "enlightened self interest," Pinnell said.

"Corporations hadn't built anything to speak of since the stock market crash," he said. "There was a kind of joy in rediscovering how a major corporation could present itself as not just a business machine, but as enlightened by the symbolism presented by its architecture."

But there is an irony in the building's new status, he said. The National Register came into existence in part because historic structures were being demolished to make way for new, modernist ones, not unlike the boat building. Now, though, it's the modernist buildings that need preserving.

"It's kind of an irony of history that the historic preservation movement - which was started when the old traditional buildings were getting knocked down - is now faced with saving some of the things knocked down by its previous clientele," Pinnell said.

The Phoenix plans an extensive rehabilitation of the building, and will relocate all of its statewide operations under that one roof.

In addition, to mark the occasion of the National Register listing, The Phoenix Foundation is granting $10,000 to the Hartford Preservation Alliance, an organization dedicated to preserving and enhancing Hartford's architectural assets.

According to its website, the register was authorized under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 to support public and private efforts to protect historic and archaeological resources. The register is managed by the National Park Service.

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.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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