In 1928, an innovative suburban office campus opened in Sedgefield, a recreational-themed mixed-use community located between two of the largest industrialized cities in North Carolina: Greensboro and High Point. Pilot Life Insurance Company was the client for the architecturally themed campus of Colonial Georgian style somewhat representative of Tryon Palace in New Bern.
Greensboro’s insurance industry can be traced to the Greensborough Mutual Fire Insurance Company of 1850 and the Greensborough Mutual Life Insurance and Trust Company of 1851. Fifty years later the industry matured to include the Dixie Fire Insurance Company, the North Carolina Grange Mutual Insurance Company, the Jefferson Standard Life Insurance, and Pilot Life Insurance Company.
Pilot Life Insurance Company grew from a service of the Worth-Wharton Real estate and Investment Company, renamed the Southern Loan & Trust Company in 1899. Pilot Life was chartered independently in 1903 and began a trajectory of growth in downtown Greensboro. As early as 1913, Southern Life adopted a slogan “When you think of Life Insurance, Think of The Pilot” with a visual reference to the stone-capped Pilot Mountain in nearby Surry County. “A ‘Pilot’ Life Policy is a First Class Certificate of Health,” stated the advertisements. Under Alexander Worth McAlister’s management, the company grew rapidly, and his branding work related to Pilot Mountain translated to the use of the icon in the newest company’s name as Pilot Life when it was established in 1924.
McAlister held an affinity for recreation and especially the sport of golf. In 1908 he organized the Greensboro Golf Club with himself as its president, and in 1911 established the Greensboro Country Club in conjunction with a suburban residential development through the Southern Real Estate Company known as Irving Park.
The Irving Park neighborhood was born from the ideal that rural environs were superior to that of the city. This ideal tapped into evolving concepts of recreation, density, zoning, exclusivity, nature, and aesthetics. The result was the development of a planned, heavily restricted, and landscaped community that set a standard for suburban development in Greensboro for the next century.
Irving Park was a remarkable success in terms of popularity and sales and most of its prime lots were sold by 1920. When the heirs of American Tobacco magnate John Blackwell Cobb of New York City and Stamford, CT sold his 3,650-acre hunting lodge “Sedgefield” in 1923, McAlister’s newly formed development company “Sedgefield, Inc” acquired the sprawling tract. Within a year, the company advertised “acreage tracts of from 1½ to 500 acres; and a topography suited to every sort of development in country homes and estates” on the property.
As president of Sedgefield, Inc., McAlister soon saw to the organization of a new country club, golf course, dining room, and ballroom in Cobb’s Neoclassical Revival-style manor house. By April 1926, plans were announced for a 150-room Sedgefield-Continental Hotel. The three-story English Tudor-style structure [image, right] was designed by Newark, NJ architect Nathan Harris as a destination resort hotel with golf, tennis, and horse stables to entertain guests. In June 1927 a full-page advertisement in the Greensboro Daily News stated “Its unique combination of suburban home life and outdoor recreation; its natural charm and beauty, and many improvements, Sedgefield has been accepted by the public enthusiastically…” McAlister was appointed directing head of all sports activities at the Sedgefield Country Club.
As McAlister cultivated an upscale image based on a recreational resort for residents and visitors of high wealth in Sedgefield, Pilot Life Insurance Company grew rapidly in economic stature and staffing. By 1925 the company celebrated a 25% increase in growth over the previous year and substantially increased policyholder dividends. To celebrate, the semi-annual company picnic was held for 100 women and men at Sedgefield. The company was outgrowing its offices in the 1899 Southern Life and Trust Company Building at 110 East Market Street. The Greensboro Daily News stated in November 1926 “from a small office on the first floor taken by the company at the time the building was completed, the Pilot organization has expanded until it now occupies the top four floors of the building.”
On November 7, 1926, the company announced plans to construct a suburban office complex in Sedgefield. “The tendency of life insurance companies for the last ten or 15 years has been to place their home office buildings removed from the business centers, and in some instances as far out as the suburbs” McAlister stated. “The reason for this is that they do no business over the counter, their business coming through agents, by mail, telegraph and telephone. There is no reason why they should be crowded into the congested business centers…”
During the cornerstone ceremonies of November 1927, McAlister stated to a crowd of employees and dignitaries, “this idea was simply this: To build in some setting of natural beauty, withdrawn from the congestion and noise and ugliness of the city, a home for the business of the Pilot Life Insurance company and allied corporations, a business home that would combine with beauty of location, a semi-domestic architecture of pleasing simplicity…”
McAlister cited Aetna Life Insurance Company of Hartford, the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company of Minneapolis, the Maryland Casualty Company of Baltimore [image, right], and the Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Company of Newark as examples of suburban office complexes. Of course, the siting of the Pilot Life home office removed from the city might also precipitate some residential property sales in McAlister’s Sedgefield community located just across the street.
The company also recognized that office facility expansion would be eased with a campus-style arrangement of buildings. The Daily News reported, “the company expects to follow the horizontal plan rather than the vertical – it will have ample ground.” There were also recreational benefits, citing “in addition to spacious lawns and gardens surrounding the building, the company will provide athletic fields for the recreation of its employees.”
In these capacities, the Pilot Life Insurance Campus presaged the development of suburban office parks. The complex stands as North Carolina’s earliest example of a corporate office complex located well outside – in this case over six miles – from Greensboro’s center.
To compose this new and monumental approach to office design in the North State, McAlister turned to the Philadelphia-based architectural firm Zantzinger, Borie & Medary, with local consulting by Greensboro-based Harry Barton. The Philadelphia firm was founded in 1910 and was well regarded in national architectural circles. The firm is credited for designing the Philadelphia Parkway design which placed the Philadelphia Museum of Art atop an acropolis-like form and surrounded it with additional cultural institutions.
At the time of the Pilot Life project, principal partner Milton Bennett Medary, Jr. was the president of the American Institute of Architects (1926-1928). He was said, through a newspaper account, to have “personally given this big construction job his individual attention.” The firm held a great deal of experience designing monumental structures and campuses. The architects had experience in comparable projects such as the Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company Building on Fairmount Avenue.
Medary was said to hold specialized styles in which he frequently practiced. Architectural historians state “While Medary’s architectural career was notable for its use of that type of gothic revival often considered appropriate for both collegiate and ecclesiastic projects, he was equally at ease with the Georgian revival style. In 1929 he was honored by his own profession with the Gold Medal of the AIA. He died unexpectedly in August 1929.
Construction of the Pilot Life campus began August 1, 1927 and was completed by June 1, 1928. The Georgian Revival-style composition of the central offices was thought to have been inspired by Tryon Palace in New Bern, a seminal Georgian-style mansion lost to fire in 1798 but documented by historian Benson J. Lossing in 1851. An article published on July 2, 1924 in the Greensboro Daily News stated the building was “said to have been the finest building in the Colonies.”
Lossing observed that the central brick residence stood three stories in height with a central gabled pavilion. In front of the residence was a “handsome court [yard].” The two-story dependency on the right was the secretary’s office and the laundry and mirrored to the right was the kitchen and “servant’s” hall. These were connected to the main residence by a curved and covered colonnade. Later research corrected Lossing’s interpretation of the original complex as two stories in height.
Architect Medary reinterpreted Lossing’s documentation and aggrandized the three-story façade of the main building with English Renaissance features. The central building, named for David Parks Fackler of New York City and Pilot Life’s consulting actuary, was designed with Indiana limestone trim of pilasters, quoins, and dentil cornice, alongside a wrought iron balcony and reliefs of farmers, mothers, and scholars. Buildings to each side, Mebane (right) and Commons (left) also sported sumptuous limestone details and ironwork. Covered arcades built of brick and stone linked Fackler to Mebane and Commons. Angle-Blackford Company of Greensboro was the general contractor. The central building “Fackler” contained the executive offices; the eastern building named Mebane housed the fire insurance companies; and the western building named Commons featured an assembly room, cafeteria, and other employee amenities. In 1951 and 1960, the company’s growth precipitated two large additions on the northern side of the Fackler building.
Interior details were sumptuous and sophisticated. They included a marble finished lobby, a grand staircase, custom metal lighting fixtures, a wood paneled president’s office with a fireplace, and paneled board room with plaster cornice. Iconography includes bees and a hive for industry, scales for equity, pelicans for balance, and an owl for wisdom. The Commons Building included a roomy cafeteria, a dining room, and a movie theatre.
The grounds were designed by noted Philadelphia-landscape architect Robert B. Cridland. Cridland held previous experience in Greensboro, having designed the grounds of Blandwood (1908), additions to Irving Park (1916), a municipal park (1921), Latham Park (1925), and the War Memorial Stadium (1926). Latham’s plan included a central reflecting pond surrounded by a rolling English landscape of meadows punctuated with occasional native trees such as White Pines and American Elms.
In the ensuing years, Pilot Life Insurance Company grew to become a leader in North Carolina’s insurance industry and helped establish Greensboro’s reputation as “the Hartford of the South” in recognition of the Connecticut capital’s role in the nation’s insurance industry.
In 1953, Pilot built a country club for its employees. The club had dining, swimming, boating, fishing, tennis along with recreational facilities. It was demolished around 1992. In 1965 and 1967, a storage facility and adjoining printing plant were constructed. The campus was a community center of Christmas celebrations as the company displayed a Nativity scene on its front lawn as early as 1936. The stately appearance of the campus was a point of pride among citizens and employees.
In time, Pilot Life merged with cross-town rival Jefferson Standard, and with the construction of a new office tower in downtown Greensboro in 1990, the old campus was abandoned. It was listed to Preservation Greensboro’s inaugural Treasured Places Watch List in 2005 but was removed when Kisco Senior Living acquired the property for reuse as a full-service community in July 2008. Kisco worked through Teague, Freyaldenhoven & Freyaldenhoven Architects & Planners, LLP in Greensboro to stabilize the building and arrest the legacy of deterioration that vexed the property since 1990. Years later, Kisco determined their strategic plans no longer included the property and the site is for sale again in 2017.
Clachan properties acquired the central portion of the campus in September 2022. The Richmond-based company has a reputation for accomplishing challenging historic preservation projects in Virginia and the Carolinas. The sale includes seven buildings with more than 222,000 square feet and 26.38 acres. Clachan said it intends to convert the long-abandoned property into luxury, market-rate apartments and has received recognition of the campus on the National Register of Historic Places to unlock lucrative Historic Tax Credits. The nomination includes all the surviving buildings and the viewshed from the three original buildings to High Point Road.
In a state of sprawling corporate campuses, the Pilot Life Insurance Company campus in Sedgefield holds the distinction of North Carolina’s first such development. Though it was born from an ideal of recreation and fitness, it remains today as a benchmark of an architectural era reminiscent of the ambitions of the Roaring Twenties. With redevelopment leveraging Historic Tax Credits, Guilford County will retain one of North Carolina’s most noble architectural landmarks.
Written by Benjamin Briggs
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