Historic Modern Office Building. Suburban Renewal…Huh?
(c) Connecticut Explored Inc. Winter 2003
The lion’s share of modern architecture is just beginning to achieve the 50-year mark for consideration as historic properties, and many of us, including experts in the national historic preservation field, are trying to wrap our heads around these seeming oxymorons.
CIGNA’s proposed redevelopment of its 600-acre Bloomfield campus is one local example, dividing the community between those who would preserve the campus and those who would redevelop, and in the process causing more than a few brain cramps. Their plan calls for razing the 1963 North building (the former Emhart Company headquarters); either razing the 1957 Wilde building or adapting it to a new use; and erecting 150 single-family house, 240 upscale apartments, an 18-hole municipal golf course designed by Arnold Palmer (currently under construction), a 275-room hotel, a conference center, and 42,000 feet of retail space. The development is named Gillette Ridge in honor of Francis Gillette, one of Bloomfield’s founders.
In the following article, architectural historian Bruce Clouette argues that the Wilde building is a classic worth saving. The National Trust for Historic Preservation agrees. Since June 2001, the Wilde Building has been on the National Trust’s 11 Most Endangered Places in the United States. Just what Connecticut General hoped to achieve in its move from Hartford to Bloomfield in 1957 is the subject of Sheila Daley’s companion story.
Proponents of the redevelopment cite preservation of property rights and increasing Bloomfield’s tax base as reasons to forge ahead. David P. Handlin of Cambridge, MA is one of the few architects who, as a paid advisor to CIGNA, supports the site’s redevelopment. At a March 7, 2001 hearing before the Connecticut Historical Commission, Handlin conceded that the Wilde building itself is a substantial work of architecture, although he considers the building’s curtain walls–the dominant characteristic of the exterior–to be less than stellar. He argued for its adaptive reuse, even while acknowledging that much of what made the interiors remarkable had been lost as the spaces have been modified over time.His stronger argument was for the site’s overall redevelopment. Handlin argued that according to his research, “the interaction of the building to land was never a high priority of design…There is not one comment [in the original plans]about the relationship of the building to the broader landscape in which it is set.”
Handlin, author of The American Home: Architecture & Society, 1815-1915, reserved his harshest criticism for the North (or Emhart) Building, calling it “a quick sketch, a stunt…a one-liner, and architectural dead end.” Tyler Smith, who had energetically led the campaign to save the Connecticut General campus, disagrees but as the building’s fate is certain, he mounts the Soap Box and offers an eloquent elegy.
By Bruce Clouette
The roar of acclaim for the Wilde Building began before it was built, with the plans winning Progressive Architecture’s “Design Award” in 1955. Renowned modernist architect Walter Gropius chaired the committee. Its completion was greeted by articles in the professional journals of architecture and other design specialties, in business magazines such as Fortune and Business Week, and in popular news magazines. Commentary appeared in Italian, French, and German journals. In 1957 the American Institute of Architects named it as one of “ten buildings in America’s future,” and in 1958 it won the Institute’s First Honor Award. In 1960, the Architectural League of New York awarded two gold medals: one to the Connecticut General project, and the other to Ludwig Mies vans der Rohe’s Seagram Building. Contemporary opinion clearly nominated the Wilde Building for an immediate apotheosis to the Pantheon of Modernism.
The Wilde Building, completed in 1957, is an important work by Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill (SOM), the firm that, more than any other, set the course for post-World War II corporate offices throughout the world. The building was an innovative, award-winning project that became widely known, and today it continues to be regarded as a milestone in the development of modern architecture. Among the distinguishing characteristics of the type embodied in the Wilde Building are its rectilinear form, repetitive-module design,tinted glass walls, and renouncement of ornamental detail. As with its high-rise counterpart, New York City’s Lever House (1952), the Wilde Building employs thin metal mullions and cantilevered massing to achieve the sense of lightness that became one of the firm’s hallmarks (see Preservation’s September/October 2002 issue in the Lever House’s recent restoration). The Wilde Building’s significance is augmented by the collaboration of other leading artists of the period, including interior designer and sculptor Florence Knoll and sculptor Isamu Noguchi. Knoll custom designed interior decoration and chose the office furniture; many of her pieces have become classics in their own right. Internationally well-known sculptor Isamu Noguchi designed the Wilde Building’s inner courtyards and the terrace along the building’s south side. Benches, paths, pools, and plantings are sparingly arranged in curving geometric forms. Noguchi also designed a sculpture group sited north of the circulating drive. Three pink geometric forms are said to represent father, mother and child. Noguchi himself noted that “this was my first perfectly realized garden.”
The building is a pioneer of the suburban office. Usually thought in terms of residential change, suburbanization, one of the great transformations of American life, also involved the dispersion of industry, offices, and commercial outlets. Frazar B. Wilde, president of Connecticut General, had a set of expectations for the company’s new building that epitomized America’s early visions for the suburbs. Although highly attuned to the publicity value of the undertaking–Connecticut General hired Cunningham & Walsh, a Madison Avenue firm, specifically to promote the high cultural and visionary aspects of the project–Wilde and his design team appear to have sincerely believed the principles they espoused, and there can be no doubt that their example was embraced by countless other corporate relocations to suburban office campuses.
The Wilde Building is one of Connecticut’s foremost examples of International-Style architecture as it was realized in corporate architecture. Developed in Germany and elsewhere during the 1920s and ‘30s, the style eschewed ornamental effects in favor of a utilitarian “industrial” appearance that made use of the latest developments in architectural engineering and materials. Steel framing, glass walls, and repetitive modular exteriors became hallmarks of the style, as did rectilinear massing and the use of cantilevers.
In this country, there had been a number of International-Style houses before World War II designed by both émigrés and native-born architects with avant-garde sensibilities. However, it was the post-World War II building boom in corporate offices that established the International Style as a fixture on the American scene. Europeans such as Walter Gropius, Marcel Bruer, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe influenced generations of American architects through the example of their own works (particularly Mies’s Seagram Building in New York City) and as faculty in leading American architectural schools.
Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and Gordon Bunshaft
The firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill had an immense influence on the course of corporate architecture both here and abroad. Beginning with Lever House in New York City (1952), a high-rise blue-green glass tower with a stilted base and horizontal plaza, SOM spawned hundreds of corporate headquarters in the same idiom, both through their own work and in the work of those influenced by their example.
Chief Designer Gordon Bunshaft (1909-1990) was responsible for the look of most of the firm’s early commissions. Bunshaft had studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1928 to 1935, receiving Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in architecture. A Rotch Fellowship allowed him to travel in Europe to study both historic and modern architecture, during which time he met Walter Gropius, then living in London. Returning from his tour, Bunshaft moved to New York, where he joined SOM in 1937. Bunshaft served as a military engineer during World War II, a position that allowed him to spend a great deal of time in the company of Le Corbusier in Paris toward the end of the war. Upon his demobilization, he returned to New York and rejoined SOM, where he remained until his retirement in 1979.
The Wilde Building was SOM’s first low-rise suburban design and was closely replicated in subsequent commissions, including one for Ford in Dearborn, Michigan; it was in many ways a horizontal embodiment of Lever House. It also marked Bunshaft’s first successful realization of total design, which he envisioned not only as the architect’s programming with the client but also hand-in-glove collaboration with those responsible for landscape elements (such as Noguchi) and interior design. Florence Knoll provided the necessary clean, well-ordered, yet visually exciting and forward-looking appearance that the building’s owners expected. Her firm was responsible for numerous subsequent projects for corporate clients in association with SOM, as well as some highly visible design triumphs such as the black, white, and red geometric signature motifs developed for the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad.
In 1988, Gordon Bunshaft received the prestigious Pritzker Architectural Prize in recognition of his life’s achievements. Architect Kevin Roche’s remarks on that occasion reflect the estimate of his importance among the international architectural community:
For many years, he has been the leading exponent and most influential practitioner of modern architecture in this country and almost single-handedly has created the current form and character of high-rise office buildings and set the standards for large suburban headquarters….For almost half a century he had dominated what must be the most successful architectural partnership by any measure in history.
The Case for National Register Nomination
A property achieving significance within the last fifty years is excluded by the National Register Criteria unless it is of exceptional importance within the appropriate historic context, whether the scale of that context is local, state, or national. The intent of the exclusion is to prevent the listing of properties of passing contemporary interest. Sufficient time must have elapsed to develop adequate historical perspective for evaluating the long-term importance of the property. In the 46 years since its completion, substantial evidence has emerged to indicate that there is much more than just “passing contemporary interest” in the Wilde Building. Carol Herselle Krinsky, in her book-length study of Bunshaft titled, Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, identifies it, along with Eero Saarinen’s General Motors Technical Center, as one of two “important prototypes for suburban office buildings throughout the United States and Europe.” The architectural historian Hasan-Uddin Khan, in his recent global survey of International Style architecture, The International Style: Modernist Architecture from 1935 to 1965, chose to feature the Wilde building as one of five influential works by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, whom he called “corporate designers par excellence…[who]set the standards for corporate architecture worldwide.” Earlier, Alessandro Mendini had chosen it among five representative SOM buildings (not all of which were the same as Khan’s five) in his article on the firm. Finally, in his remarks on the occasion of the awarding of the Pritzker Prize to Gordon Bunshaft, architect Kevin Roche included the Wilde Building among the ten works of a “seminal nature” specifically mentioned as illustrations of Bunshaft’s talents. The importance of Bunshaft and SOM in the development of corporate architecture, the early date of the Wilde Building and its standing as the firm’s first suburban office building, and the continued interest in the building among the architectural commentators indicate that it has achieved the exceptional importance needed to accelerate its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Shortly after the building opened, Connecticut General hosted a three-day symposium on the future of American cities that drew together 400 leading architects, city planners, economists, and cultural figures such as Lewis Mumford. Quoted in Time magazine, Wilde himself express the belief that the building “may exert an influence on the office of the future, perhaps even on the city of the future.” The Connecticut General complex is historically important as a large, highly visible, early symbol of the ascendance of the suburbs in post-war America.
Bruce Clouette is staff historian for Public Archaeology Survey Team, Inc, a private nonprofit organization that specializes in archaeological and historical research and public education in the Northeast. This article is adapted from the draft National Register of Historic Places nomination form, which he prepared on behalf of the Campaign to Save Connecticut General.