By Sheila Daley with Elizabeth Normen
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Winter 2003
To many, Connecticut General’s move out of Hartford to a new suburban office park in 1957 was the obverse of Aunty Em’s farmhouse landing in Oz. Their glass and metal modern office building, set in a Bloomfield cow pasture, seemed out of place and far from home. But setting a revolutionary office building in a bucolic landscape was, in fact, the realization of a new big idea: relocate workers from the busy city to the countryside — into a work environment created for maximum efficiency — and watch productivity skyrocket. As Architectural Forum noted in its September 1957 issue the Wilde Building “is surrounded by the English kind of countryside that Constable painted and Thomas Hardy wrote about: ancient, thrilling oaks, meadows, rows of ridge lines rising like wave crests from shallow misty valleys…And in the middle of it all a building for the completely insured air age.”
For nearly 100 years Connecticut General (CG) had its headquarters in Hartford, the Insurance Capital of the World. Founded in 1865, Connecticut General saw tremendous growth in the early 20th century. Between 1901 and 1936, the company’s home office workforce grew from 12 to 550 employees. Spurred by similar growth, The Hartford, Connecticut Mutual, and Aetna moved to spacious new buildings on Asylum Hill in 1919, 1926, and 1931, respectively. In the early 1950s, several other companies moved a few blocks further west but stayed within the city limits.
In 1947, CG projected it would outgrow available space in its headquarters on Elm Street overlooking Bushnell Park within the next decade. That year Frazar Wilde, Connecticut General’s president, floated the unconventional idea of moving the company out of the city. Late in 1950, 268 acres of farmland were purchased in Bloomfield, but the decision to build in Bloomfield was not taken lightly and, indeed, it was not announced until May 1, 1953. As foreseen, CG’s departure from downtown Hartford was met with skepticism. Dismissing these critics, Wilde reflected in a 1957 issue of the Connecticut General Bulletin:
A few stockholders didn’t like the country idea at first, but they were people opposed to any change. Actually, our move was evolutionary rather than revolutionary. I can remember when all the insurance companies in Hartford were centered on Main Street or Pearl Street because they were close to the streetcar line. Then one of them created a sensation by moving across the park six blocks away from the car tracks. People said it wouldn’t work, but after that others began moving to get more space. Now we have merely gone a little further away. Factories long ago began building away from cities. Our problem was not too different, for we needed an efficient white-collar plant. Our aim was a business success, not an artistic success.
Wilde’s conception for the Bloomfield location was to build an insurance operation that was like an assembly line for light manufacturing: paperwork would pass from department to department with applications coming in one end and, after multiple processing steps, policies coming out the other. A low, horizontal building with minimal partitioning, large floor areas, and almost complete flexibility of layout, would be more efficient than the vertical space typical of urban office buildings. In the countryside, the building could stretch out rather than rise, allowing paperwork to flow more rapidly across departments on one level rather than be shuffled up and down between floors of a high rise.
Connecticut General hired a Madison Avenue public relations firm to put a positive spin on the move. A press release as planning got underway announced:
In moving to a nearby suburb we are not really withdrawing from Hartford. This city as an economic unity has long since outstripped its political boundaries. Actually, the dollars we spend through our payrolls and purchasing are our most important contribution to the economy of Hartford. These dollars Hartford will continue to have. Connecticut General has, thus, by no means moved out of Hartford. We expect to continue to be an important factor in this great city’s economic life as we grow in the future. We do not feel that the change in location to the other side of the city limits will make any significant difference in our contribution to the community.
Concerned not only with employee’s productivity, but with their willingness to work outside the city, intensive planning between the company, the architect, and builder went into the development of the new headquarters, including employee amenities. The interior space had high ceilings flooded with natural light. Expansive windows and few interior partitions guaranteed long sight lines and views to acres of manicured landscape for nearly every employee, none of whom were more than 30 feet from a window. Today the employee amenities sound more like a country club in Oz’s Emerald City than a workplace. In addition to an employee cafeteria, the new building included an auditorium and recreational facilities: bowling alleys and rooms for games, cards, and relaxing. A rental collection of books and records was available in the company library. Barbershops and hairdressers, a medical facility, and a well-stocked company store were built in. Hartford retailers were given opportunities to display their wares to keep employees aware of shopping trends downtown. Outdoors, there were four tennis courts, six horseshoe pits, two shuffleboard courts, three softball fields, a paved area for volleyball and basketball, and a lawn area for croquet and lawn bowling. During the winter, the pond and reflecting pool by the cafeteria froze over for ice-skating and a paddle tennis court was available.
Executives however, were housed in their own five-story freestanding tower off the northwest corner connected to the main building by a glass bridge. The tower’s first floor housed the entrance to the main building but upper floors were reserved for upper-level management as well as the legal and investment departments. The top floor penthouse included boardrooms and the executive dining room and lounge–four floors above and on the opposite side of the building from the employee cafeteria off the southeast corner.
Despite the planned amenities for employees, the company worried that many employees would quit rather than commute to Bloomfield. In 1957, car ownership was far from universal and many employees depended on public transportation. To solve the problem, the company chartered buses and arranged carpools to carry workers back and forth from their Hartford homes to Bloomfield. A course called “Know-Your-Auto” was organized especially for women to increase their comfort levels with driving themselves to work. Fortunately for the company, employee turnover after the move was low.
In the 46 years since Connecticut General moved to Bloomfield, the suburban office park has passed from innovation to commonplace. Today we find variants of it along the highways of major cities and in the strip developments of suburban sprawl. Along the way, technology has changed the way business is conducted and the need for space to accommodate a paper-intensive assembly line is no more. The ‘completely insured air age’ has become the global age of the Internet. Nonetheless, Wilde realized his vision in Bloomfield. The Wilde Building inspired several generations of office parks and became a touchstone for corporate architecture. Though he made it clear his priority was to achieve a business success, for a time, Frazar Wilde, perhaps inadvertently, achieved both business and artistic success in Connecticut General’s Bloomfield headquarters. Making the prescient prediction that the building would meet his company’s needs for the next 50 years, one wonders today whether Frazar Wilde would choose art or commerce in planning for the future of the Wilde building.
Sheila Daley is archivist at the Noah Webster House & Museum of West Hartford History in West Hartford, Connecticut. This article was extracted from an earlier research paper. Elizabeth Normen is a publisher of Connecticut Explored.
The Award-Winning Wilde Building, Winter 2003