The Hartford's plan to buy the 12-acre former MassMutual property that adjoins its own campus in the city's Asylum Hill neighborhood is good news. It signals the company's commitment to the Insurance City and offers great potential for the neighborhood.
That the plan includes the demolition of the Georgian Revival office building on the site, built as the home office for the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Co. in 1926, is not good news. The Hartford should make every effort to preserve at least the original part of this handsome structure.
It's unfortunate that even a stellar corporate citizen like The Hartford thinks first of demolition.
Buildings such as this one, designed by New York architect Benjamin Wistar Morris, are what make a city and a neighborhood interesting. In the postwar era, too many attractive and historic structures have been torn down, often in sacrifice to the great god Parking. We've created cities that sometimes look like archaeological sites, a building here and there surrounded by empty space.
Having learned this painful lesson, having sold so much of our heritage so cheaply, we should shift the presumption to saving the building, mothballing it if necessary, with demolition only as a last resort. Demolition isn't good for aesthetics or the environment; it sends pollutants into the air and tons of stuff to landfills. What do workers at The Hartford want to see when they look out the window, a lovely building or a parking lot?
Asylum Hill residents have been through this before. A dozen years ago, MassMutual took the property via a merger with Connecticut Mutual and in 2001 demolished a half-dozen brick homes on Fraser Place for parking. Shortly thereafter, the company abandoned the Hartford campus. It's not clear how much the parking was ever used. There's also a parking deck on the property.
The land is just up the street from Union Station, which will be served by commuter rail and a busway in the next few years, if all goes well. If gas prices continue to rise, more Hartford employees will use these services and not need a parking space.
The Hartford is donating some land on the site for a magnet school. Could the school go in the MassMutual building? Could the building be turned into housing? Can the hideous eyesore at 6 Myrtle St. be used for Hartford parking? Can some traffic issues be resolved?
Although the Hartford seeks demolition permits, the wrecking ball is not yet a foregone conclusion. A spokesman said the company is working with planners and is eager to consider economically viable alternatives. Make no mistake, we hope the expansion allows The Hartford to bring more workers to the city.
We strongly recommend that company officials initiate a planning process with the neighborhood and other interested parties. Residents are trying to deal with the Aetna Viaduct and other issues. They ought to be involved here. They walk down these streets.
Several years ago, CIGNA officials argued that the Wilde Building in Bloomfield couldn't be saved, but then preserved the Modernist classic. Sometimes in large corporations, the real estate department doesn't look at the big picture. Let's not give up on the MassMutual building, with its wonderful portico and grand chimneys, without exhausting the other possibilities.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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