April 29. 2013 8:21PM

Aurore Eaton's Looking Back: NH Fire Insurance has broad presence, shorter name


During World War II the New Hampshire Fire Insurance Company received many letters from New Hampshire soldiers in Europe who were startled to see the company's name emblazoned on office buildings on the continent. What they didn't know was that New Hampshire Fire had been an international company since the late 1920s when it began its association with American International Underwriters Corporation (AIU). In 1967, AIU became one of the catalysts for the creation of the American International Group (AIG) of insurance companies, which would also play a role in New Hampshire Fire's history.

After the war, New Hampshire Fire bought Governor Frederick Smyth's 1872 estate on the corner of Salmon and Elm streets. Coincidentally, Smyth had been one of the original directors of the New Hampshire Fire Insurance Company. In 1950, the company broke ground on the portion of the land facing Elm Street. The stately new marble and granite headquarters at 1750 Elm Street was finished in 1951, at a staggering cost of over $2,000,000. The building was designed by the architectural firm of Cram and Ferguson, which had designed the New England Mutual Life Insurance Company building at Copley Square in Boston and other notable structures in that city. The new building was fire-proof and completely air-conditioned. The New Hampshire Sunday News proclaimed it the "Architectural Showpiece of the Queen City." It contained 90,000 feet of office space on four floors, more than three times the space available in the company's Hanover Street building. The new home office housed 400 employees, and it had its own print shop and cafeteria.

By 1959, more than 7,500 agents sold the company's policies in the United States and Canada. As the company offered a full line of property and casualty coverages - and not just fire insurance - the decision was made to drop the word "Fire" from the name. Also, as the corporation now included several subsidiaries, it became known as the New Hampshire Insurance Group, and the official trade name became "The New Hampshire." Local residents, however, persisted in calling it "New Hampshire Fire" for many more years.

The company's "foreign department" wrote policies on American-owned properties around the world under agreement with AIU. Plus, through its partnership in a related company, American International Underwriters Association, the New Hampshire expanded its reach in Europe. In 1953, it became the first American insurance company in Spain, and eventually had offices in London, Brussels, Paris, Frankfort, Madrid, Zurich, Milan and Rome.

In 1966, the New Hampshire faced a hostile takeover, which would have moved the home office to New Orleans. The resulting series of business deals led to company being bought out in a friendly takeover by the American International Group. This transaction was completed in 1969. AIG also acquired several other insurance companies, and in the following decades grew in size and complexity to become one of the giants of the insurance world. The New Hampshire continued operating profitably, but now as a member of a larger corporation.

In the spring of 1969, "The Willows," Governor Frederick Smyth's 1872 mansion, was demolished in preparation for construction of an expansion to the office building, the 185 foot tall New Hampshire Tower. The loss of the magnificent Smyth home was a sad occasion for Manchester residents. The 14-story steel-framed addition (now the Brady Sullivan Tower) was completed in 1971. The building boasted the largest electric "Megatherm" ultra-modern heating system in the country. That year, during the holiday season, the company established the tradition of covering windows on the west side of the building in green tissue paper to create an enormous backlit Christmas tree, which was topped by a lighted star. Beginning in 1979, an electrified Star of David was displayed at the top of the south side of the building during Hanukkah.

Since its founding in 1869 The New Hampshire had provided solid employment for many hundreds of people in Manchester (including this author). Beginning in the 1990s changes were occurring in the insurance industry that spelled the end of the company's local presence. Today, the New Hampshire Insurance Company remains a subsidiary of AIG, but its history as the venerable Manchester-based corporation has nearly faded from memory.

Next week: The creation of the Valley Cemetery.

Aurore Eaton is executive director of Manchester Historic Association; email her at aeaton@manchesterhistoric.org