Cheney Redux: "Invest in the Past"
by Sue Plese

reprinted from Manchester Life, April 2011

The term "corporate culture" is one that we toss around with about as much thought as "New England liberal" or "Main Street/Wall Street" or "the poor and disadvantaged." They are catch phrases, now clichés, that we use in a kind of American lingo to describe vast categories, always subject to subjective interpretation.

But Kent Schwendy, senior vice president of Fuss & O�Neill in Manchester, explained recently what "corporate culture" means to the company that occupies two former Cheney Brothers� brick buildings.

The Cheneys would still recognize their workplaces.

Mr. Schwendy, an executive who greeted me wearing khaki slacks and a sport shirt unbuttoned at the collar, led me to his office, spare by corporate standards, and housed in the Clark Building, formerly occupied by Clark Paint manufacturers and before that a Cheney building used for machine repair.

He explained the company�s version of "corporate culture," including social equity for all employees; job promotion from within, and respect for and reconstruction of the past. The company encourages interaction among the so-called "left and right brainers": engineers, artists, historians and environmental scientists all are urged to contribute to idea and design.

"We try to learn things beyond our discipline and learn how things fit together," Mr. Schwendy said. "[With] diversity of skill and educational background, you get a different perspective." He compares modern architects and engineers with the magnificent industry of spiders: the beauty of a cobweb lies in the balance of art and science. Without those elements, a structure may lack aesthetics and appear contrived.

In fact, one of the company�s proudest achievements is the new Armour Academic Center at Westminster School in Simsbury. The campus scale is small with an historic European look; the new building would replace two older and smaller ones that had been built in the 1960s. The challenge was to build something that blended in. Many old trees had to be spared, quite a challenge when the glassed-in atrium was constructed. But at groundbreaking, Mr. Schwendy realized that the architects� task was successful, when he overheard a woman remark that the structure looked as if it had always been there.

It�s not easy to adapt a modern company to an historic space. Simply wiring for electricity was a chore. Then again, old industrial structures were built with several storys with smaller "footprints." Additionally, they were long and narrow in order to make the best use of natural sunlight. Compare the Wilde Building in Bloomfield, for example, a sprawling campus that is not easily adaptable to anything but corporate use. Older multi-story buildings are easier to retrofit.

Fuss & O�Neill, founded by Hayden Griswold, who worked as a surveyor for the Cheney Brothers in the 1920s, was first named Griswold & Fuss. Maps dating back to the 1920s are still stored in the company vault. As the company grew, however, it needed more space. MCC had vacated the Hartford Road HELCO, next to the Clark Building, for a campus off Hillstown Road; the building was available, convenient, and just across the road from Cheney Hall, ideal for seminars and corporate events. And the lease was up.

"It had nothing to do with being an historic building," Mr. Schwendy said. "You don�t even think about it until something happens."

They had a choice: start new from the ground up, or live with the quirky little aspects of an old building, accepting what was part of its culture. History won.

"We identify ourselves with that building," Mr. Schwendy said.

Fuss & O�Neill has branches in seven states, and several of those branches have their own historic identity. One is housed in a wood-and-timber freight rail station in Simsbury, built in the 1800s. Another, in Providence, R.I., is located in the former American Locomotive Works, also built in the 1800s. "There�s a history you can feel," Mr. Schwendy said. "There�s something there.

"It�s a wonderful thing for me," he continued. "Any building represents energy, an investment. If you find a way to live with it you keep that past and the connection to the past."

While talking to Mr. Schwendy, I could not help but feel that the best parts of the Cheney legacy linger. They were industrialists who operated a little ahead of the times; they treated their workers with respect, donated land for churches and parks, and built Cheney Hall and Globe Hollow for worker recreation.

Center Park, location of Mary Cheney Library, is now threatened by library expansion into the lolling, grassy land the Cheneys gave to the town.

The first weekend this April the Manchester Historical Society held a rally in Center Park to protest the expansion of the library, which would require paving over some of the land and relocating war monuments. A counter rally featured people sitting in lawn chairs set on the grass, quietly reading.

Fuss & O�Neill managed to expand without destroying history and its beautiful details. I wonder if the counter ralliers realized that if the Mary Cheney Library were expanded into the park, they might have to place their lawn chairs in between cars parked on black macadam in order to read.

Not so comfy for the kids at our feet. And definitely not good for a town that prides itself in its history; indeed, that defines itself by a 19th-century family with influence that still swirls around us.