Fighting To Save The CIGNA Campus

We have a shot at the jewel, but let's not give up on the crown.

On Monday, The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the CIGNA campus in Bloomfield as one of America's 11 most endangered historic places. The designation carries no legal standing, but assures the site will receive considerable publicity, including mention on a History Channel special next month and coverage in a special insert in The Atlantic Monthly this summer.

The CIGNA campus joins such sites as a 121-year-old Chinese temple in California, a famous barn in Indiana, historic movie theaters across the country and one of the last intact Rocky Mountain mining towns on the endangered list.

In the 14 years that the trust has been preparing the list, only one building on it has been lost, a hotel in Reno, Nev., said Richard Moe, president of the trust.

It will be a real challenge to preserve the whole 650-acre campus, which is considered the country's first suburban office park. However, the site's most important structure, the Wilde Building, may be saved.

``We believe the entire campus is significant, but our focus is on saving the Wilde Building,'' Moe said.

Moe was here last week to meet with CIGNA officials. He termed the meeting ``very promising.'' Company spokesman Ken Ferraro said CIGNA and the trust reached a ``general understanding'' to work together to find a developer who can readapt the Wilde Building as a hotel-conference center.

But that's it. The rest of the remarkable space must go. CIGNA is still ``100 percent committed'' to its redevelopment plan, Ferraro said.

Too bad.

The plan, announced last year, is to replace the signature office buildings, sculpture and open fields with a golf course, housing and a hotel and conference center. Company officials said the Wilde Building and a companion building, the North Building, were outdated and inefficient.

The plan drew protests from major architects, architecture critics, preservationists, joggers and others who use the verdant site. Though most wanted to save the entire campus, the focus was on the Wilde Building, which appeared headed for demolition. This would be a huge loss.

The structure, designed by architect Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill for what was then Connecticut General Insurance Co., opened to great acclaim in 1957 and is still widely considered a triumph of modern architecture. It is stunning; clean, crisp, starkly graceful.

Ferraro insists demolition wasn't a foregone conclusion. ``All we said was that a hotel-conference center was going on that spot. We were always open to the idea of adaptive reuse of the Wilde Building. We hope it can be done,'' he said.

He said the economics will have to work and a major hotelier will have to sign on. Saving the building is important, to be sure, but it's not good enough. Redevelopment is always a trade -- you give up what was there for what is built. It should always be the goal to trade up.

What the community loses is one of the most original business settings ever conceived. It's the place where visionary Connecticut General President Frazar Wilde gathered the best designers in the country and redefined the American workplace, for better or worse. After his building, great, open, democratic workplaces became the norm.

This original place will be swapped for one of the most tired cliches in land use, a golf course surrounded by upscale homes. Just what Bloomfield needs. Maybe some residents will get to caddy.

This is trading down.

Instead of building a ``replacement building,'' CIGNA ought to take one more good look at using its landmark structures to do its business. If International Style icons such as Lever House can be renewed, why can't the Wilde and North buildings? And why wouldn't they want to?

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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