Destroying The Wilde Is Like Trashing The Atheneum

Why should the public care about saving an office building in Bloomfield? Aren't there other ones around? Why hold on to one that's almost 50 years old?

For most office buildings, the answer would be simple: demolish and rebuild. But the suburban crystal palace that housed Connecticut General Life Insurance Co., predecessor of CIGNA, is a different kind of place. It's a famous monument of modern architecture, respected across the country by lovers of fine design and by businessmen and women who stretch their responsibilities beyond simply increasing profit. It shows our country's mix of practicality and generosity in the years after the second world war, when we led the world in innovative business practices.

The current owners plan to replace all this with a golf course and ordinary office space, even though alternative money-generating designs exist.

Back in 1952, Frazar B. Wilde, president of Connecticut General, determined to streamline his insurance company's operations, but he couldn't redo its Hartford headquarters. Neglect of buildings and roads during the Depression and war years created problems that could be solved by a move to an empty site on rolling landscape in Bloomfield.

With a few hundred acres to spread out on, the insurance operations could be arranged logically, in a horizontal pattern of moving paper. Stairs and escalators eliminated the psychological barrier to contact that many people experience in high-rises when they have to wait for elevators.

The problem was that most of the work force then lived in Hartford, so staff would have to be lured to the suburbs.

Wilde and his colleagues met hundreds of times with architects, engineers and specialist designers. Skidmore Owings & Merrill, then famous for the glass slab office tower of Lever House in New York, provided architects Gordon Bunshaft as designer, William Brown as project director and Joanna Diman as landscape designer. Demolishing their building would be like trashing masterpieces in the Wadsworth Atheneum. With Manhattan's Lever House and Seagram Building, the Wilde Building set a standard seldom equaled.

Like most of America's best buildings, this one was designed from the inside out. The proportions had to be right so that people felt comfortable in their workspaces.

Cool fluorescent lighting had to be shielded by baffles to avoid glare on desktops. The clerks who sat in large areas needed visual variety, a problem solved by garden courts. Isamu Noguchi, one of America's leading sculptors, arranged three of the courts. Meticulous interior partitions and innovative furniture designed by Florence Knoll suggested modernity and corporate progress.

Surrounding all this was a handsomely proportioned exterior surface, largely of tinted green glass, held in place by silvery metallic frames. A glass-enclosed cafeteria pavilion extended toward the south near a terrace and a reflecting pool.

In the surrounding parkland, a lake that solved drainage problems added to the beauty of a setting featuring specimen trees and Noguchi's triad of sculptures representing parents and a child, participants in life insurance.

As if this weren't pleasant enough, unprecedented amenities drew good workers to Connecticut General in the country. Bowling lanes and tennis courts, hairdressers and a barbershop, a card room and a mini-department store substituted for the conveniences of downtown Hartford. Plenty of parking spaces were available. Connecticut General attracted so many job applicants that the company had its pick of employees.

Two hundred and fifty years ago, the leading innovators in Britain were country gentlemen who modernized agricultural practices, made fortunes and built stately homes that millions of tourists visit today. About 50 years ago, the leading innovators in the United States were enlightened business leaders who enhanced commercial practices, made fortunes and built handsome headquarters in the suburbs. Each period's achievements reveal the essence of their times.

Does it make sense to destroy evidence of America's proud heritage? Perhaps CIGNA's officials can take inspiration from the careful, generous and profitable practices of their predecessor, Frazar Wilde.

Carol Herselle Krinsky is professor of fine arts at New York University. She is the author of "Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill."