Video report by Mike Magnoli, Fox CT
Text by Kenneth R. Gosselin, The Hartford Courant
Hartford’s iconic “boat building” turns 50 this year, but the birth of the landmark almost didn’t happen.
Phoenix Home Mutual Life Insurance Co. was set to move its home office out of downtown in the early 1960s, ready to construct a suburban campus on land the insurer owned in West Hartford.
But an eleventh-hour plea from the city and business groups combined with support from employees persuaded Phoenix to anchor a massive, urban renewal redevelopment in the city. The project would later be christened Constitution Plaza.
What would rise on four acres south of State Street is widely believed to be the first two-sided building in the world, a sculpted structure that stands in contrast to the typical rectangular office edifice.
“Of its era, it’s classic,” Patrick Pinnell, a Hartford-area architect and planner, said. “That may be a paradoxical thing to say about a glass box, but it is a classic glass box.”
Pinnell adds: “I’m sorry, look at [Hartford’s] Gold Building. Nothing really excites.”
The boat building nickname — One American Row is the actual address — was coined from the shape of the 13-story tower, an “elliptic lenticular cylinder.” That means if you look at it from above, the building has the shape of a short canoe or some other boat with a pointed bow and stern.
The green-glass building, with three more stories below the plaza level, was conceived by the New York architectural firm of Harrison & Abramovitz. The firm is also known for its design of Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center and the United Nations headquarters, both in New York City.
The design, in the modernist style that followed World War II, was a statement of optimism for the city’s future amid redevelopment and is an early predecessor to the ”ripply, curvy” buildings now rising in Dubai and Singapore, Pinnell said.
The boat building’s design stood in sharp contrast to Phoenix’s previous, Romanesque Revival-style headquarters on Elm Street, space the insurer had built and occupied in 1920. The state purchased the Elm Street property for offices but there are flourishes still recalling its past, including ornamental gold phoenixes.
One American Row took about 15 months to construct, at a cost of $12 million, according to a 1964 article in Forbes, roughly $90 million in today’s dollars. There is enough exterior glass to cover two acres and 200 windows on each floor, Phoenix said.
“Ben Holland, Phoenix’s president at the time, made two critical decisions — the first was to the stay in Hartford and the second was to go for an unconventional design that would symbolize an innovative and forward-thinking company,” said James D. Wehr, current president and chief executive officer of the company, renamed The Phoenix Cos. Inc. in 2001.
Modern Becomes Historic
In recent years, Phoenix has faced significant financial struggles, amid rating downgrades and difficulties expanding its customer base. The insurer has downsized its workforce several times.
But in the 1950s, the insurer described itself as “rapidly growing” and its offices on Elm Street had become too small. Phoenix, however, could not find a suitable location for expansion in the city.
So, the insurer purchased 58 acres on Asylum Avenue in West Hartford and had secured zoning approvals for a suburban campus.
The popularity of suburban corporate campus was starting to gain momentum and one major insurer, Connecticut General Life Insurance Co., now Cigna, had already relocated to Bloomfield.
Phoenix appeared poised to follow when city leaders and prominent business owners approached the insurer about the Constitution Plaza redevelopment project. The meeting came as a surprise because Phoenix had owned the land in West Hartford for a decade and had actively been pursuing a relocation for another three years, according to reports in The Courant.
“…No one in Hartford in authority or otherwise ever said, ‘We’re sorry you’re moving’ — ‘Let us help you solve your problem’ — ‘Please stay’ — or anything else,” Lyndes B. Stone, then president of Phoenix, told The Courant in 1963.
According to the Courant reports, Phoenix was intrigued because it had wanted to stay in the city in the first place. A survey of employees yielded a majority of support for building in Hartford as opposed to West Hartford.
Grand opening festivities were set for November 24 through November 27 in 1963, but they were postponed after the assasination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22. A lower key dedication was held December 2, the first day of work for Phoenix employees in their new offices. The event was marked by the lowering of a 5-foot floral anchor into a reflecting pool, evidence that the boat building name had already stuck.
Phoenix is celebrating the 50th anniversary this week, a month early but timed to celebrate the completion of $8 million in renovations to the plaza level. The renovations, which include a 40-percent increase in landscaped areas, is part of the city’s iQuilt project. IQuilt is aimed at making downtown more pedestrian-friendly and connect its attractions.
Pinnell said the building designs for the rest of Constitution Plaza did not live up to the stylistic nature of the boat building, and the success of the redevelopment, which wiped out the entire Front Street-Market Street neighborhood, was wildly mixed in the years that followed.
The plaza never reached its full potential, experts have said, hampered because a connecting ramp from Main Street was not built. That left the plaza elevated far above the street and difficult to reach, further isolating the area. In addition, housing that would have added “after-hours” life was scrapped mid-way through.
Today, there are plans to reinvigorate Constitution Plaza. A builder wants to construct housing on the former Broadcast House site, now demolished; and another developer is close to converting the old Sonesta Hotel into housing.
In 2005, the boat building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There was an irony in that status because the register came into existence, in part, because historic structures were being demolished to make way for new, modernist ones, not unlike the boat building.
There remains a cultural tug as well, Pinnell said. The Constitution Plaza redevelopment produced the boat building yet it also leveled an entire neighborhood with low-rise buildings — apartments above retail — that are prized in downtowns today. Some of that space could have been converted to business incubator space, Pinnell said.
The boat building has held up over time, Pinnell said. When Phoenix placed green film on all its windows as an energy conservation measure, it had the perhaps unintended effect of sprucing up the building’s appearance.
“It has the crisp feeling that it had before,” Pinnell said.