A Boost For The Wilde Building

If there is any lingering doubt that the CIGNA campus in Bloomfield -- home of the landmark Wilde Building -- is truly a special place, it should have been erased by Monday's announcement from the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Calling the campus a ``modern architectural icon,'' the National Trust named it one of ``America's 11 Most Endangered Places'' for this year.

The danger comes from CIGNA Corp.'s plans to demolish the much-honored Wilde Building and companion North Building and redevelop the lovely 600-acre campus with housing, shops, a hotel/conference center, offices and a golf course. The company says the existing buildings no longer meet the needs of its health insurance group.

Opened in 1957 as the headquarters of Connecticut General Life Insurance Co., what is now known as the Wilde is the premier example in the United States of the International Style office building. It is the creation of renowned architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and a team of gifted landscape architects and interior designers. The building and the campus have a larger historical significance because CG's move to the suburbs set the pace for much of American business in the postwar period.

The National Trust's designation could help convince CIGNA that a better plan can be developed that would at least preserve the Wilde Building. The ``Most Endangered Places'' listing will also shore up preservationists' efforts to find developers and investors interested in alternative uses.

A nonprofit organization in Washington, the National Trust helps local groups save buildings and neighborhoods by providing technical know-how and financial assistance. Among the endangered places on this year's list are historic movie theaters such as the Senator in downtown Baltimore; Ford Island at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, near Battleship Row; and a historic African American neighborhood in Richmond, Va. Many sites listed by the Trust in recent years -- such as the Fifth and Forbes historic retail area in Pittsburgh -- have been saved from demolition or further deterioration because developers have stepped forward with new plans.

Almost every week, it seems, newspapers carry stories about the successful conversions of office complexes -- whether high-rise or horizontal structures such as the Wilde Building. Surely a landmark as honored and useful as the Wilde can find new life, if not with CIGNA, then another owner.

In announcing the list, Richard Moe, president of the National Trust, noted that ``the buildings on the CIGNA campus are less than half a century old, but they are internationally recognized as masterpieces -- and they have plenty of use left in them.''

Last week, Mr. Moe met with CIGNA officials in Hartford, apparently to discuss a process by which developers could submit reuse plans for the company's Bloomfield campus. We hope those discussions bear fruit. The National Trust's inclusion of the CIGNA campus on its endangered list should add momentum to that goal.