The World’s Largest Colonial Style Building

Does “Colonial” Infer “Worker Bees?”
Aetna, Inc’s Headquarters, Hartford

May 16, 2008

aeth.jpgThis post wasn’t a planned one at all – I found all this stuff out while researching the Geographic center of Hartford excitement. Turns out, the massive Aetna Insurance building holds some rather impressive – and CTMQ-worthy – distinctions.

it is the largest “colonial-revival style building in the world.” THE WORLD I SAYS. Of course, as my architectural student wife says, “Are there even colonial buildings outside of the US?” If you think about it, she has a good point. (She always does.) So I decided to check out the building – now, all of images below are from the website, but I took a few of my own that sort of stunk (I didn’t want to flash) – there is something weird about snapping pictures inside an office building. (State Legislative Offices notwithstanding)

However, as you’ll see, I did run into a rather important Aetna employee… First, some good info from the company website:

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.

aetd.jpgAetna’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 corridor on the A floor is 1/8 of a mile long, from the Sigourney Street lobby to the cafeteria.

Some building highlights:

The Aetna Auditorium – 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.


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.

In the main center entrance lobby on the 1st floor, there is a cool 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!

aetg.jpgHere’s a shot of one of the many painting around the building… Here are three Aetna presidents from 1872-1957:
– Thomas Enders served during the depression years of the 1870s.
– Morgan Bulkeley presided over a multiline company; served as Hartford’s mayor, and as governor and senator of Connecticut.
– Morgan Brainard served during the Depression of the 1930s, the war years, and the postwar era. Schooners represent, not maritime insurance, but the river merchant industry that provided the capital used to start the insurance companies.

During my walk around the cavernous building, I ran into a gentleman who seemed to be causing quite a twitter. So I took his picture:


That would be the rather wealthy, rather impressive, CEO Ron Williams. Seemed like a real nice guy… so nice, I decided to slip into some class he was quickly meeting and pretend to be part of it. This wasn’t nearly as bad as the time Hoang and I crashed an Eastern European wedding where we were the only English speakers and Hoang was the only non-Caucasian. Both ended without incident…


Since Hartford is (or at least until recently, was) the Insurance Capital of the world, this won’t be my last insurance building stop around town – there are tours of the historic Traveler’s Tower and of course I would be a fool not to mention the only two-sided building in the world (at the time it was built), the Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance building. In due time, my friends, in due time.


For the Curious:

Aetna history!
Aetna firsts!
Ron Williams ranks 33rd in compensation!

5 responses to “The World’s Largest Colonial Style Building”

  1. Rob says:

    Mass Mutual’s building in Springfield (review available on looks a lot like the Aetna building. Was that an architectural coincidence or was it the idea that colonial-revival style building helped the practice of insurance?? Ideas to ponder….

  2. GM vs. Penske: The Value of Saturn « AQPQ by Enterprise Man says:

    [...] > Geographical Corporate Conflicts. Culture clashes between large bureaucratic parents and small subsidiaries are not only political in nature; they are often based on geographical differences as well. Saturn’s Tennessee based management team, for instance, was both physically and philosophically distant from GM’s Detroit based executive offices. Similarly, US Healthcare’s managers were based in a modern, spartan office park in suburban Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, far from Aetna’s Hartford, Connecticut headquarters, housed in the world’s largest colonial revival-style building. [...]

  3. Errol says:

    James Gamble Rogers also designed nine of the twelve residential colleges at Yale and several impressive buildings in New Haven.

  4. Steve says:

    Thanks, Errol.

    I still have a few Architecture tours in New Haven (and of course Yale) to do. Now I’ll remember the connection.

  5. Alison says:

    I happened to come across this page while looking for pictures of the building. (I work there). I didn’t know there was a basketball court in the auditorium! Thanks for sharing. Also, I didn’t know the main hallway was 1/8th mile long. I just knew it took forever to walk from my department (by the sigourney st entrance) to the cafeteria!

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