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Controversy has been raging ever since CIGNA announced its plans to abandon and demolish the Wilde Building and build new offices for itself elsewhere on its 600-acre Bloomfield campus.
CIGNA asserts that the building no longer fits the company's needs, that it is inefficient space for its business today, not energy-efficient and hard to maintain. Some don't see the beauty in the architecture. The company wants a new hotel/conference center/golf club on the spot where the Wilde Building now stands.
These arguments will sound familiar to Americans who followed the historic preservation movement in the 1960s and 1970s, during urban renewal. We lost a lot of Victorian buildings then, with just the same reasoning: They're inefficient; they're expensive to heat; they're ugly. That was before Victorians became as widely valued and cherished as they are today. We've learned a lot since then about the value of preservation to society, all pertinent to the current debate over the future of the Wilde Building.
Why do we preserve?
The longest standing reasons are twofold: 1) to retain great works of architecture as part of our nation's artistic patrimony, just as we preserve and protect great paintings and sculpture; and 2) to retain the places where important history took place, places that connect us in tangible ways to our history and the American experience.
When the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the Wilde Building on our list of America's 11 most endangered historic places in 2001, we did so for just these reasons. It was designed in 1957 for an enlightened client, Frazar Wilde, CEO of Connecticut General, by an all-star artistic trio comprised of architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, interior designer Florence Knoll and sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The Wilde Building quickly became a landmark of modern design, the mecca for young architects at the time, widely published and heavily medaled. It is a great piece of art, worth keeping. The Wilde Building also created history. One of the very first corporate headquarters built outside of a downtown, the building established precedents that shaped the American corporate workplace for decades after. Connecticut General's removal from downtown Hartford to a suburban location accessible almost solely by private automobile was a watershed event, a highly publicized event that quickly captured the attention of CEOs, planners and developers. It could be said that the construction of the Wilde Building was a tipping point in Connecticut's own development as now the most suburbanized of all New England states.
But, what about Progress, you ask? Progress and Preservation? Many Americans look at these two concepts and think that they are irreconcilable, opposing forces. They think that if we preserve our built environment, we are inhibiting progress. But, of course, we are not.
Not any more than Rome inhibits progress by keeping the Coliseum.
Not any more than Hartford does by keeping the Old State House.
The National Trust is confident that the Wilde Building can be renovated to serve today's needs. Most buildings, even when outdated, are flexible and reusable. Architects, if asked to do so, can usually find ways to adapt old buildings for new uses. The best of them can do this without destroying the original architecture or snuffing out the connections to history. CIGNA's architects, Elkus, Manfredi Architects of Boston, are among the best in the region and certainly capable of adapting this community landmark to serve CIGNA's needs today for hotel, conference center and office space.
We also know that communities seeking to attract businesses, residents and visitors will be more successful if they have a special sense of place that distinguishes them from the competition. Increasingly, literature on economic development, business recruitment and job growth is making the connection between these goals and places that retain a sense of place. By preserving its landmark buildings and special places, Bloomfield can avoid becoming just Anyplace USA. A new mixed-use development with the Wilde Building as the centerpiece will be more distinctive and attractive than one without.
All communities are concerned about jobs these days. Preservation plays a vigorous role in creating jobs, for rehab is more labor-intensive than new construction. According to a study by Rutgers University's Center for Urban Policy Research, each $1 million spent on non-residential historic rehabilitation creates two jobs more than the same money spent on new construction. Americans are also concerned about their physical environment, and historic preservation can be a component of every community's environmental practices. A 1980s study indicated that 25 to 30 percent of the stuff in America's landfills is construction and demolition debris. That's a quarter of all our trash. In a nation of 278 million people, about 80 percent of us consider ourselves environmentalists. We conscientiously recycle 117,000 cans every hour, while we throw away about 250,000 older buildings every year. Another 1980s study measured the energy value embodied in building materials. Researchers found that it took the energy equivalent to one gallon of gasoline to make eight bricks. We can and must recycle buildings as an integral part of our nation's environmental policy.
Preservation has come a long way in the last 40 years. Preservation is no longer about pickling buildings in time. It is about community renewal and community viability. It is about progress - progress that retains the best of the past and that embodies wise use of resources as part of our commitment to the future.
Wendy Nicholas is director of the Northeast office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, created by an act of Congress in 1949 to help preserve historic sites.