Construction is finally underway at the long-vacant building prominently located at the corner of Pearl and Trumbull Streets in the heart of the downtown business district. But whatever happened to that building and why has it been empty for so long?
111 Pearl Street, built in 1950, was reported by the Hartford Courant as the first “new, modern downtown office building” in 25 years.[i] While the newspaper’s claim may be slightly exaggerated, the building industry saw drastic decline beginning in 1930. New construction during this time consisted primarily of civic centers, but the building at 111 Pearl Street brought Modern commercial architecture to the heart of the city’s business district.[ii] Yale University School of Fine Arts alumnus Willard Wilkins, AIA, of West Hartford, Connecticut, designed 111 Pearl Street.[iii] The fundamental component of his designs is using the ideology of the Modern movement. The builder of the Pearl Street project was Edward Packtor Company of Wethersfield, Connecticut. Packtor was general contractor on numerous large projects throughout New England; in Connecticut, the company built 11 Asylum Avenue in Hartford as well as housing projects and schools.[iv] Construction of the $1 million (valued at almost $10.5 million today)[v] building began July 1, 1949, and was the first of many properties in a city-wide building boom. Although municipal and residential construction continued, the two world wars drastically slowed commercial construction in Connecticut’s capital city; it wasn’t until the middle of the twentieth century that Moses J. Neiditz, a leasing company out of West Hartford with properties all over central Connecticut, commissioned a brand-new building in the city’s center. In 1940, only one-third of the labor force worked in offices; by 1950, when 111 Pearl Street was built, the demand for additional commercial space had almost doubled, with 61 percent of workers in clerical, service, or managerial positions.”[vi] The building, prominently located at the corner of Pearl and Trumbull Streets in the heart of the downtown business district, became a symbol of the new urban corporate America.
At this time, Modernism became the architectural language of commerce.[vii] The building at 111 Pearl Street embodies the distinctive characteristics of Modern architecture. The building was designed free from past precedents and typical of the Modern style. The building has a flat roof and a smooth, unornamented surface distinguished by alternating bands of red brick and aluminum-cased ribbon windows. The simplicity of form and bold horizontal lines; use of windows as design element as well as light source; and focus on materials exemplify Modern commercial architecture. No purely ornamental details, such as cornices, friezes, or pergolas borrowed from times past adorn the building—its freedom from ornamentation is its expression of Modern design.[viii]
When it was built, the building looked unlike any of the buildings surrounding it, which had been constructed earlier in the century.[ix] 111 Pearl Street was not designed with high style, but instead provides an early example of utilitarianism with aesthetic catalogue finishes. This sleek seven-story building stood in stark contrast among shorter, more traditional-looking downtown commercial structures. The building melds form and function, employing steel framing with concrete masonry units and brick veneer exterior. The building employed the most modern building materials, design, and technology available, rejecting the past as it celebrated engineering and technology as architectural design.[x] Each element of the design had a purpose and, likewise, the structural components of the building were incorporated into its aesthetic; the ribbon windows are vertically-oriented three-light aluminum-framed divided into five bays by structural columns. The use of the ribbon windows provided the function of allowing natural light and ventilation into the building while creating a visually-striking artistic expression.
The excitement over the new, modern office building at 111 Pearl Street is difficult to ignore. In June of 1950, the Hartford Courant published an extensive article detailing the design, construction, and tenets who would be occupying the space.[xi] Once the building was completed, the August 13, 1950, issue of the Hartford Courant printed six separate articles about the project, including exposés on the terrazzo flooring, the rubber and asphalt tiles, the air-conditioning, and the general contractor. The amenities available in the building were the first of their kind in Hartford, so renting the spaces to full capacity was a simple task. The new commercial building ignited the first of many explosions of downtown development in Hartford. As demand continued to rise for prime-location realty in the city, developers were happy to oblige.
The cycle of fervent construction for eager occupants and lulls while the tenant base replenished with new companies anxious to move downtown. In January of 1986, William H. Farley, president of the Hartford-based commercial real estate firm, Farley Co., released the 1985 year-end real estate survey, which showed a vacancy rate of over 15 percent—up almost four percent from the preceding year. Farley warned that, although demand continued for additional new space due to growth in Hartford’s professional services and insurance industries, an excess of existing space is already on the market, with more in various stages of design and construction. He believed that eventually the market would plummet, especially if all planned projects were realized.[xii] It appeared, for the moment, as though Farley’s doomsday prediction was wrong; according to a 1986 year-end study by New York real estate company Cushman & Wakefield, Hartford’s downtown office vacancy rate for Class A buildings was less than five percent, lowest in the United States.[xiii] Hartford appeared unstoppable.
As many other cities across the country fell on hard times, Hartford continued to enjoy a stable market. John B. Cavanaugh of the real estate brokerage Cavanaugh Fritz & Co. stated in late January of 1987 that “We are living in a Wonderland here,” but was also quick to address the unsustainability of continued development at such a fast pace and the possible shift of supply and demand as well as the complications that could arise in the future as a result. Cavanaugh believed it would take two or three years to realize the effect of the perpetual commercial growth downtown.[xiv] The projects to which Cavanaugh was referring, which, at the time, were in the planning or construction stages, effecting the commercial real estate market in 1987 included the following: a 280,000-square foot building at 100 Pearl Street; a 315,000-square foot high-rise called Goodwin Square on Asylum and Haynes Streets; the 250,000-square foot CityPlace II, the sister tower to CityPlace; a 25- to 30-story skyscraper dubbed the MetroCenter at the corner of Ann, High, and Chapel Streets; 200,000-square feet of development on Pratt Street; half a million square feet of a World Trade Center on Asylum and Ford Streets; a 47-story skyscraper on the corner of Pratt and Main Streets; the 40-story high-rise Oakleaf Development on Church, High, and Allyn Streets; and a project by Stamford-based Cutter Realty Group Inc. to raze the buildings at 37 and 41 Lewis Street as well as 101 and 111 Pearl Street and build a new tower.[xv] Also in early 1987, the Pavilion at State House Square opened its doors with 884,813 total square feet of available retail and office space. The brand-new building, located next to Hartford’s Old State House drew tenants easily, including Aetna, who had occupied a majority of the 111 Pearl Street previously. The abundance of new leasing options that flooded the market that year lead to lower monthly rates in prime realty with a fresh coat of paint all over downtown and buildings, like 111 pearl Street, that once proclaimed to have the most modern conveniences, were abandoned.
Vacant since the final Hartford building boom of 1987, multiple plans have been approved by the City of Hartford and then abandoned by various developers to rehabilitate or demolish the property. Architectural drawings from CBT Architects and DEW Architects, P.C. indicate that plans were in process of updating offices at 111 Pearl Street in 1986, prior to the building becoming abandoned.[xvi] From 1987 to 1989, 111 Pearl Street was owned by Cutter Realty Corporation, which had plans to demolish the property and erect a 59-story building, Cutter Financial Center. Had the project been realized, the skyscraper would have been the tallest building in New England.[xvii] In 1990, plans fell through for Cutter because of finances and the group sold the property to Toombs Development Co. of New Canaan, Connecticut, and John W. Galbreath & Co. of Columbus, Ohio.[xviii] The City of Hartford became the recipients of the stagnant site housing 111 Pearl Street and the rest of the former proposed Cutter site in 1993. Lexington Partners, a Hartford-based commercial real estate service company and developer, offered to purchase the property from the city. The $17 million project, which would have included offices, 60 apartments, retail spaces, and a parking garage, would have been the first major development in downtown Hartford in nearly a decade. Additional project proposals for the site came from Lewis Street Development Group L.L.C. and Lewis Street Ivestors to demolish 111 Pearl Street for parking and to convert the building into “people-oriented” offices and shops, respectively.[xix] None of these development proposals moved forward.
Seven years passed before developer Martin J. Keeny purchased the building site as 111 Pearl Street Associates from the city. His plan to convert the first story of the building into retail space and floors two through seven into owner-occupied housing units was never realized.[xx] Plans emerged again in 2012 from Lewis and Pearl Street Ventures to create a cohesive downtown development, which included lofty ideas, including a glass-enclosed sky walk.[xxi] Similar to previous attempts and developing the site, the Pearl Street Ventures project never made it off the ground. In July of 2015, Pearl Street Properties LLC purchased 111 Pearl Street, but nothing has come of the acquisition, as 111 Pearl Street remains an abandoned building in a prime location at the intersection of Pearl and Trumbull Streets, the heart of Hartford’s downtown.[xxii] Hope has, once again, been restored to the derelict property with the collaboration of Girona Ventures and Wonderworks Construction and Development Corporation. The partnership is the second project in Hartford for the two firms, which had previously rehabilitated the old Hotel America located at 5 Constitution Plaza. Construction is currently underway to rehabilitate 111 Pearl Street, with an expected completion date of January 2019.
By Aileen Bastos
[i] “Newly Completed Neiditz Building Gives City a Modern Downtown Office Structure,” Hartford Courant, August 13, 1950.
[ii] Gregory E. Andrews and David F. Ransom, Structures and Styles: Guided Tours of Hartford Architecture (Hartford: The Hartford Historical Society, 1988), 224-227. Very little construction occurred in Hartford from the end of the 1920s to the 1960s. The buildings that were erected were either located outside of the downtown business district or were not commercial structures.
[iii] “Willard Wilkins Dies: Architect for Area Schools,” Hartford Courant, November 5, 1971. John F. Gane ed., American Architects Directory: 3rd edition 1970, R.R. Bowker Co., 1970. The American Institute of Architects, “The AIA Historical Directory of American Architects,” The AIA Historical Directory of American Architects. http://public.aia.org/sites/hdoaa/wiki/Wiki%20Pages/ahd1048526.aspx [accessed November 10, 2016]. Wilkins designed primarily residential properties in the popular Colonial Revival style and municipal and educational buildings throughout Connecticut, but in 1944, he was on a panel for House Topics, where he discussed an architect’s approach to the question of traditional vs. modern design. “Fairfield Avenue Historic District,” National Register of Historic Places, 2010; Charleston Gazette, April 7, 1946. Manchester Board of Education Agenda (April 22, 2012), 35; “House Topics,” Hartford Courant, November 12, 1944. In the late 1950s, his catalogue of work centers primarily around municipal and educational buildings, including the courthouse in Putnam and many district schools in Meriden, including the city’s two high schools, Orville H. Platt and Francis T. Maloney. Ariana D’Avanzo, “In Down-at-the-heels Meriden, There’s Hope that a $220 Million School Construction Project Will Help Lift the Whole Town,” Meriden Patch, February 3, 2015. [accessed December 2, 2016]. The design of the Putnam Courthouse, built c. 1966, focuses on the idea of symmetry with a façade “unified by limestone boxes around both the first and second floor windows with a central panel of black granite between them.” “Putnam Courthouse, Putnam, CT,” Mid-Century Mundane: The Most Exciting of Mundane Mid-Century Architecture, May 20, 2015.
[iv] Press Release, “Wethersfield Historical Society’s House Tour Returns with Six New Homes to View,” June 13, 2015. http://wethersfieldhistory.org/pressreleases [accessed November 4, 2016].
[v] U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, CPI Inflation Calculator, https://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm
[vi] Janice P. Cunningham, Historic Preservation in Connecticut, Volume III, Central Valley: Historical and Architectural Overview and Management Guide (Hartford: State Historic Preservation Office, 1995), 121.
[vii] Ibid, 140.
[viii] Ulrich Conrads, “Le Corbusier: Towards a New Architecture: Guiding Principles,” Programs and Manifestos on Twentieth Century Architecture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1970), 59-63.
[ix] “Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Hartford, Hartford County, Connecticut,” Sanborn Map Company, 1922 (updated 1950). Retrieved from the Connecticut State Library, http://sanborn.umi.com.cslib.idm.oclc.org/ct. (Accessed July 28, 2017.)
[x] Janice P. Cunningham, Historic Preservation in Connecticut, Volume III, Central Valley: Historical and Architectural Overview and Management Guide (Hartford: State Historic Preservation Office, 1995), 141.
[xi] “Pearl Street Building to Open in July,” Hartford Courant, June 4, 1950.
[xii] Klein, Pamela, “Office Space to Rise, Rental Rates Fall in ’86 Pennzoil,” Hartford Courant, January 8, 1986.
[xiii] Baird, Jane, “Downtown Office Vacancy Rate Lowest in U.S.,” Hartford Courant, January 27, 1987. Raise, Lawrence B., “A Wash in a Sea of Offices: Vacancy Tide Rises, Construction Ebbs,” Hartford Courant, June 18, 1980. Class A buildings are newer buildings, less than 20 years old, and located in prime areas. Class B buildings are slightly older, but still considered high-quality real estate.
[xiv] Baird, Jane, “Commercial Real Estate Sees Low Vacancy Rates,” Hartford Courant, February 1, 1987.
[xv] Baird, Jane, “Downtown Hartford Office Projects at Various Stages,” Hartford Courant, February 1, 1987.
[xvi] DEW Architects, P.C., “List of Drawings: A1 Floor Plan, A2 Reflected Ceiling Plan, A3 Door & Finish Schedules & Details, A4 Casework Details, EF1 Electrical & Furniture Plan,” September 12, 1986. Kaufman Black Lyons Inc., “CBT Permit Drawings,” July 2, 1986.
[xvii] Baird, Jane, “Restaurant Kicks off Opening of Downtown’s Newest Retail Center,” Hartford Courant, March 7, 1987. “Plan to Deal with Hartford Unemployment, Housing Problems Due,” Hartford Courant, March 2, 1987. Klein, Pamela, “Office Space to Rise, Rental Rates Fall in ’86 Pennzoil,” Hartford Courant, January 8, 1986. Russell Gibson von Dohlen, “Cutter Financial Center Drawing,” September 23, 1987.
[xviii] Horgan, Sean, “Cutter Realty Corp. Loses a Top Executive,” Hartford Courant, February 16, 1989. Raise, Lawrence B. and Bill Keveney, “Cutter to Sell Interest in Hartford Tower,” Hartford Courant, June 16, 1990.
[xix] Swift, Mike, “Plan Would Add Stores, Housing to Downtown Mix Partners Want to Buy City-Owned Cutter Site,” Hartford Courant, August 15, 1997. “Cutter Site Proposals,” Hartford Courant, August 27, 1997.
[xx] Swift, Mike, “Site Considered for Housing; Vacant Pearl Street Building Purchased from City,” Hartford Courant, March 8, 2004.
[xxi] Connecticut Housing Finance Authority, “2011 Summary Report,” March 15, 2012. Carlesso, Jenna, “State Picks Peal Street Developer: Hartford’s Lewis and Pearl Street Ventures Poised to Take Lead on Apartment, Retail Complex; Hartford,” Hartford Courant, November 1, 2012. Gregory Seay, “Idle Pearl St. Towers’ $43M Housing Makeover Nears,” Hartfordbusiness.com, December 10, 2013. Bordonaro, Greg, “Trophy Property,” hartfordinfo.org, June 10, 2013. http://www.hartfordinfo.org/issues/documents/downtowndevelopment/hbj_061013.asp [accessed October 3, 2016].
[xxii] City of Hartford, Connecticut, Property Record Card, “0111 Pearl Street,” updated June 29, 2016.