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A Corporate Icon That Should Be Preserved
It's on a list of the 11 ``most endangered'' places in the United States, as selected by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It's the Wilde Building in Bloomfield.
The Wilde is a modernist 1957 corporate headquarters, a crisp glass jewel set in one of those green rural campuses that corporations loved to create in the '50s and '60s. The owner wants to demolish it. It should be saved.
The Wilde an object of preservation? Isn't preservation about red bricks and white clapboard -- not modernist boxes?
I try this on Robert Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture. He is an architect who builds anti-modernist, neo-Colonial stuff such as the recent Spangler Center for the Harvard Business School. A former chairman of the preservation program at Columbia University, Stern is a fan of the Wilde.
``This has caught the preservation movement off guard,'' he says. ``Modernist buildings were, in part, what gave rise to the preservation movement in the first place. Nice stone and brick buildings with careful details were being replaced by rather mechanically conceived modernist buildings.''
But not all modern buildings were mechanically conceived. The Wilde is a gem of its kind. It's also important as an early and influential model for the age of great corporate campuses.
``It is a cultural and artistic landmark of incomparable quality,'' Stern says. ``It embodies the idea that cities could be emptied out into the country for a kind of ideal corporate campus life. These corporate campuses were meant to express an enlightened idea of employer-employee relationships. This was the first example, and there is no better one.''
The Wilde was built as the headquarters of the Connecticut General Life Insurance Co. The architect was Gordon Bunshaft, a leading American modernist who is best known for his Lever House in New York, which is now being restored. The Wilde, with a crisp, elegant, abstract, gridded glass-and-metal facade, stands as a foil to the lovely, rolling green Connecticut landscape.
The site today amounts to 650 acres, three-fourths the area of Central Park in New York. It was conceived as a park for both the employees and the community. On a recent visit, I saw a deer walk up to the edge of the internal drive, look left and right like a well-trained child, then cross the drive and bound off.
Connecticut General wasn't sure employees would be happy outside the city. So, in the early days, it provided city amenities: a branch supermarket, dry cleaning and laundry, barber and beauty shops, a medical facility, a bowling alley, even theater and fashion shows.
The Wilde was a collaboration of the best and the brightest of the time. Sculptures by Isamu Noguchi stand in the landscape. Noguchi also designed three of the building's four interior courtyards. Legendary designer Florence Knoll created the interiors. It was an idealization of the American suburban dream.
Eventually, Connecticut General was absorbed by CIGNA, a national insurance corporation based in Philadelphia, which uses the Wilde as headquarters for its health care division. CIGNA now wants to redevelop the entire site.
It plans to demolish the Wilde and a later Bunshaft building and replace them with an elaborate development. There would be an 18-hole Arnold Palmer golf course, 153 houses, up to 60 condos, up to 240 apartments, a clubhouse, a hotel and conference center, two new office buildings for CIGNA, and a small office park for other tenants. The master plan was developed by Boston architects Elkus/Manfredi. Judging by this plan, most of the passion has gone into the golf course. The rest of the proposal is routine or worse.
CIGNA, in fairness, has a case to make. It's no mean task to renovate a 44-year-old building with 830,000 square feet of floor area (about half that of Boston's Hancock Tower), or to find a market for it in the depressed Hartford area. The Wilde needs everything: new infrastructure for today's technology, better energy performance, better working conditions.
What may be more important, though, is that the Wilde is where CIGNA's master plan calls for a hotel. CIGNA, which says it's open to ideas, is talking with the National Trust to see if an agreement is possible. Meanwhile, an outraged preservation community is becoming a PR problem for CIGNA.
It's a tricky issue. The Wilde is the very good realization of a very bad idea. The mass exodus from the American city, led by corporations such as Connecticut General, helped kick off 30 years of an urban depression that is only now lifting. It also filled the countryside with cars and sprawl. Nobody at the time, of course, dreamed these would be the results.
Life magazine featured the Wilde under the headline ``Fine New Building Meets Challenge of City Crisis.'' But the Wilde was creating a crisis, not solving one. The departure of companies such as this sucked economic vitality out of the cities. People too poor to own cars couldn't travel to the new suburban jobs. Stuck back in town, they became the underclass.
You wouldn't want to encourage more suburban corporate campuses. Nevertheless, you don't just throw good buildings away. You find new and appropriate uses for them.
CIGNA should have started the master planning process with a different question. It should have asked: What is the best use for our 650 acres, and the best environment for ourselves, if we commit to keeping one or both of the historic buildings? That question was never asked. It is the question both CIGNA and the National Trust should now be asking. They should ask it of some creative thinkers.
David Manfredi, partner in the Boston firm that authored CIGNA's current plan, agrees. ``I want to find the other solution,'' he says.
The art, the literature and the architecture of the period just before our own always falls into a pit of temporary unpopularity. Boston doesn't have any significant corporate campuses to worry about. But the day will come when, for example, City Hall or the Hancock Tower will be preservation issues. The taste police of one generation should not demolish the remarkable works of an earlier time.
At CIGNA, a better solution is possible -- if it's really wanted.
Robert Campbell is the architecture critic of The Boston Globe, where this article was first published.