Aetna History: Aetna Home Office – A photo tour

Aetna Firsts | Home Office

Aetna's corporate headquarters at 151 Farmington Ave., Hartford, Conn., remains a historic and architectural gem. Take a few moments to follow this "self-guided" tour.

This building is Aetna's fifth home. Prior to 1931, Aetna's home office buildings had, for nearly 80 years, been located in the heart of downtown Hartford. The move to this "suburban campus" was extraordinary in that it was considered an inconvenience for employees in an era when most did not own automobiles. To compensate for this, the building originally provided many amenities, including a state-of-the-art cafeteria, a store stocked with the same merchandise carried by downtown merchants, bowling alleys, squash and handball courts, tennis courts, a basketball court and a library.

Aetna's gold-domed design was inspired by the Old State House, which is located in downtown Hartford and was created in 1796 by renowned American architect Charles Bullfinch. The land upon which the current home office building was erected has passed through the hands of such historic figures as Thomas Hooker, the city's founder; Daniel Wadsworth, businessman and 19th - century cultural figure; and U.S. Sen. James Dixon, a personal friend of Abraham Lincoln and, by some accounts, the deciding vote against conviction in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson in 1868.

Made of brownstone and red brick, the building that fronts Farmington Avenue was designed by James Gamble Rogers and is, to this day, known as the "Rogers building." Rogers overlooked nothing that might add to the health, comfort and efficiency of the employees such as innovative office lighting and acoustical wall tile. Four and one-half million bricks were used on the exterior of the Rogers building, all of which were made locally.

The Rogers building cost $8 million to construct. In today's dollars, that would be $82,500,000! Over the ensuing years, a six-story wing was added to the east and west sides of the original structure to accommodate the company's growth.

The A Floor
The Rogers building was, and still is, the largest colonial revival-style building in the world. The corridor on the A floor is 1/8 of a mile long, from the Sigourney Street lobby to the cafeteria.

 

1. The Aetna Auditorium -- As you walk from the Sigourney Street lobby toward the cafeteria, the auditorium is on your right, halfway down the corridor. The auditorium has a fascinating past. Originally called "Bulkeley Memorial Hall," it has a seating capacity of over 1,000, and was originally fitted with the latest stage and motion picture equipment of the day. According to an early brochure, "The auditorium floor provides adequate space for both dancing and basketball."

 

Underneath the carpet is a regulation basketball court specifically designed and built to accommodate the country's premier women's basketball team of that time - the Aetna Life Girls' Basketball team. Composed completely of Aetna employees, the team was widely recognized as one of the best women's teams in the world and played in venues such as Madison Square Garden. The team regularly drew crowds numbering in the four figures to its games in the home office during its heyday from 1928-1932, and members of the team were lauded by James Naismith for their sophisticated grasp of the game he invented.

2. The auditorium also features an Austin Quadruplex organ (front left of stage), the only one of its kind that is in its original installation and still remains playable. The "Quad" was the world's most sophisticated organ when Aetna purchased it in 1929 for $20,000. Today, its value is almost priceless because many of its parts - which include some 2,500 pipes - are irreplaceable.

 

3. Note the hand-carved frieze of scallop shell, oak leaves and acorns that form the crest of the stage opening. The oak tree holds a prominent place in Hartford and Connecticut history: The charter for the Connecticut colony was hidden in the trunk of a massive and mighty oak tree (called the Charter Oak) about 1/4 mile from the Old State House during the American Revolution.

 

4. The East Courtyard features a bell from the original Dixon mansion that stood on the current home office site. As mentioned above, the mansion was the residence of U.S. Sen. James Dixon in the mid-1800s. Many of the nation's leaders in the mid-1800s visited Dixon at his home, including Secretary of State William H. Seward (who negotiated the purchase of what is now Alaska from Russia ("Seward's Folly") and numerous Civil War generals. The plaque below the bell the explains that it hung outside the main house on the estate and was used by Mrs. Dixon to "summon the gardeners for instructions."

 

5. Take the center elevators on the A floor to the first floor lobby ("Main Entrance" or "Center Lobby") and face the main hallway to view the brass bas relief of Eliphalet Adams Bulkeley, Aetna's founder and first president. This brass bas relief is the work of noted American sculptor John Flanagan and was originally installed circa 1916 in Aetna's 650 Main Street home, which was next door to the Wadsworth Atheneum (and destroyed in the early 1960s). When Aetna moved to its current home office, it took the bas relief with it!

 

6. The center elevator bank includes six elevators, the doors for which were crafted in solid bronze by artists Parzini and Rochette under the supervision of building architect James Gamble Rogers and installed in 1930, just prior to the grand opening of the home office in January 1931.

 

Each bronze panel (except "aviation') includes a robed, female figure (symbolizing insurance) and is considered, according to an Aetna publication published in the 1930s, "a masterpiece in bronze depicting some phase of human activity pertaining to insurance, the whole assembly comparing favorably with some of the most beautifully designed bas relief to be found anywhere."

Starting at the upper left and moving down the door, the eight panels were described in a memo dated Dec. 4, 1968 as follows:
Orphan - "Insurance is foster mother, business partner, counselor and friend."
Old Age - "The serenity of protected old age."
Transportation - "Insurance guards the highways of distribution, as well as the workshops of industry."
Navigation - "Insurance sails the seven seas."
Widow - "Lonely they walk, but not alone."
History - "The history of man is written in the light of knowledge."
Aviation -- "They shall mount up on wings of eagles."
Agriculture and Industry - "The farm, the forge and the marts of trade."

The Front Grounds
Walk through the center lobby doors and down the steps onto the front esplanade that leads to Farmington Avenue.

7. On the small patch of grass on your right is a charred block of brownstone with a carved rosette. This piece of locally quarried stone was once part of the magnificent, gothic Saint Joseph Cathedral (that stood across the street from Aetna where the "new" cathedral is now) that burned to the ground in 1956 in a suspicious fire. Aetna offered its auditorium to the church to hold Sunday mass for its parishioners for several years while a new cathedral was being built. To thank the company for its generosity, the Hartford Archdiocese presented Aetna with this stone.

 

8. Continuing down the esplanade toward Farmington Avenue, you will find a large brass directional compass embedded into the stone. This spot marks the exact geographic center of the city of Hartford.

 

9. The end of the esplanade is marked by a low brownstone wall, which was originally topped by an ornate wrought iron fence scrapped during WWII to "help the effort," surmounted by two imposing hour-glass lamps designed by building architect James Gamble Rogers.

 

In an Aetna publication published more than 75 years ago, these one-of-a-kind lamps were described as follows: "The hour-glass shape is always a thought-provoking symbol and particularly appropriate in this case, for it clearly suggests the idea of the time-tested service which Aetna has been providing for over three-quarters of a century and is continuing to provide day after day and month after month."

10. One-mile marker -- Two centuries ago, Farmington Avenue was an unpaved road leading west over Avon Mountain and into the wilds of the Farmington Valley and beyond. The distance traveled was marked in miles by stone pillars, one of which is embedded in the brownstone wall on the west side of the esplanade. Over the years, the markings on this pillar have become faint, but the inscription reads "H 1m." -- the distance from the Old State House to this point is exactly one mile.

 

11. Walk to the building's east sidewalk and you will see two enormous copper beech trees from the original Dixon estate that were moved from the rear of the property to their present location when this building was under construction in 1929. These trees are considered two of the largest of their kind in the New England.

The Back Grounds
The land on which the home office sits has a distinct beauty in every one of Connecticut's four seasons. The grounds were originally planned in intricate detail by renowned landscape designer Ellen Biddle Shipman, who designed more than 650 gardens in the U.S. between 1914 and 1946 for businesses and families, including the Fords, Astors and DuPonts.

12. Nowhere is Shipman's sweeping style more evident than on Aetna's back lawn, which is opposite the entrance to the ramp garage. Since the Rogers building opened in 1931, thousands of newlyweds have chosen Aetna's lush lawn with its imposing dual cascading brownstone staircases as the perfect spot for photos. At one time, Aetna's grounds gracefully swept downward past 12 employee tennis courts to the Park River - the same river that flowed past the Farmington Avenue home of Samuel Clemens and that was put underground by the city of Hartford in the late 1930s to eliminate flooding.

 

13. Opposite the main entrance to the ramp garage, you will see an ornate wrought iron gateway, which leads into a sculptured formal garden of brick walls, fountains and, in season, daffodils, tulips, flowering wisteria, and azalea. This is the "Memorial Garden," planted as a living tribute to Morgan Bulkeley Brainard, Aetna president from 1922-1955. Walk from this garden through another iron gate into the "formal gardens" originally planted nearly 75 years ago.