February 2: The World’s First Two-Sided Building

Today in 1961, the Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Company unveiled plans for a new corporate headquarters building in downtown Hartford, featuring a bold and revolutionary elliptical design unlike anything the city — or the world, for that matter — had seen before.

Designed by the famous modernist architect Max Abramovitz, the new Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Building was an absolute show-stopper at the time of its reveal: A thirteen-story, 225 foot long, glass building that would sit a stone’s throw away from the Connecticut River.  The most stunning aspect of the design, however, was its unique, two-sided, “elliptic lenticular cylinder” shape, the first of its kind ever built in the world.  The building, which resembled a giant glass canoe, quickly became known as “the Boat Building.”

“The Boat Building” under construction, circa 1962. (Nassau RE)

The rapidly-expanding insurance giant’s February announcement was welcome news to city leaders, who had weathered a steady exodus of residents and corporate tenants to the suburbs over the last decade.  Since Phoenix owned an attractive lot of land in West Hartford, many had assumed the company would build its headquarters there; instead, after an internal poll indicated that most employees preferred to remain in Hartford, Phoenix executives decided to double down on their commitment to the city.  Construction of the Boat Building took just over two years to complete, with employees reporting to work in the new Phoenix headquarters for the first time in December 1963.  The new Boat Building helped create momentum for the nearby Constitution Plaza urban renewal project, and over fifty years later, remains one of the most striking and unique features of the Hartford city skyline.  In 2005, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Further Reading

Kenneth R. Gosselin, “Hartford’s Iconic ‘Boat Building’ Marks 50th Anniversary,” Hartford Courant

The Phoenix Building, Hartford,” connecticuthistory.org

Slideshow: Construction of the Boat Building,” Nassau RE