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How The Wilde Was Won

CIGNA's Plans To Raze Landmark Building Ignited Campaign To Preserve A Suburban Icon

May 21, 2006
Commentary By TYLER SMITH

The recent death of the great pro-urban thinker and city advocate Jane Jacobs coincided with the news of CIGNA HealthCare's decision to save the Wilde Building. Her death rekindled in my mind some contradictory thoughts on the building.

"The Wilde Is Saved" announced the May 7 editorial in The Courant. It went on to add: "That is good news." It is good news, indeed, for a whole bunch of reasons. The Wilde Building is an architectural landmark of national and international significance, eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. Its pedigree alone makes it worth saving.

It was completed in 1957, built on 450 acres of rolling farmland in the then rural town of Bloomfield, and served as the signature headquarters for Connecticut General. The building was one of the most complete and well-conceived examples of the International Style. It was designed by Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, a firm noted for other modern corporate buildings such as Lever House in New York City. The interiors and furnishings were designed by Florence Knoll. Isamu Noguchi designed three of the interior courtyards, the landscape and the outdoor sculptures.

It was built when Hartford really was "the insurance capital of the world" and the big three of Hartford - the Aetna, Travelers and Connecticut General - were the dominant players in the insurance industry.

It was named after Connecticut General's president, Frazar B. Wilde, the driving force behind its creation. He broke rank with the other Hartford-based insurance companies by moving out of the city to the emerging suburbs to build this new vision of the American workplace.

This move was as controversial as the announcement in 2000 that the successor company, CIGNA, intended to tear down the Wilde Building and its modernist cousin the Emhart Building, re-contour the site into a golf course and sell off most of the remaining land for housing development.

In her 1961 book, "Death and Life of Great American Cities," Jane Jacobs vigorously criticized Connecticut General's move to the suburbs. To her, it was the epitome of misguided, anti-urban, auto-centric planning.

Back then, I thought she was dead right.

In the early summer of 2000, I first got wind of CIGNA's plans to demolish the Wilde and Emhart buildings and redevelop the site. A two-paragraph article appeared in the Hartford Advocate announcing that CIGNA would be presenting its "plan of development" to the town of Bloomfield for approval.

My reaction was shock, disbelief and anger. In the ensuing months, which stretched to years, these feelings coalesced and broadened into The Campaign to Save Connecticut General. The campaign rapidly engaged a national and international constituency of architects and preservationists, as well as citizens from Bloomfield and around the state.

In 2001, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Wilde Building one of its 11 most endangered historic places in America. That same year, Yale's School of Architecture made it the centerpiece of a symposium called "Saving Corporate Modernism." The Courant brought the issue to the attention of readers with news stories, editorials, Commentary pieces and a scathing cartoon. There were even a few - no, more like a couple of - people within the CIGNA hierarchy who saw the merit of saving the Wilde Building.

I wondered then why my thoughts and feelings about the Connecticut General campus had changed over the decades, and why I felt so passionately about trying to save it. In part I think it was the play of time, a component that Jane Jacobs recognized as an essential ingredient in the urban mix. But I also think there was something that she might not have seen and only became evident over time.

What was it? It was the evolution of the Connecticut General campus into a unique suburban place; a place where people came to work, a place people came to take walks and play sports, a place to gather for picnics and concerts, a place of tranquility and great beauty.

Time confirmed the completeness of the composition of the buildings in their landscape and the quality of design and materials. Time also revealed the historical significance of this campus as a model workplace of the last half of the 20th century, just as the Samuel Colt complex in the South End of Hartford reveals a clear vision of the late 19th-century workplace.

It is wonderful the Wilde Building will not only be saved but will be renovated and restored for use by CIGNA in the 21st century. For that, those at CIGNA who made this decision deserve our thanks.

But much of that sense of place has been lost. Oh how I wish that, if CIGNA really had to build that golf course, it could have seen what a great clubhouse the Emhart Building would have made, and if CIGNA really had to build all that housing, it could have done so in the spirit and with the quality of the Wilde Building.

So with a glass half-full, I say: "Thanks, CIGNA."

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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