Revisiting Hartford's lost architecture -- watch as Hartford's first skyscraper is demolished.

In 1990, a local Hartford bank reassured city leaders that plans for an office tower at the corner of Main and Asylum streets were real and the 45-story edifice would be built.

Just one thing stood in the way: the 78-year-old Hartford-Aetna Building, the city's first skyscraper. Over the protests of preservationists, the 11-story building came tumbling down.

Today, nearly 25 years later, there is no tower, only a parking lot.

Hartford's first skyscraper isn't alone in its departure from the downtown skyline. Architectural gems like the New Palace Theater, the original YMCA building, the hotels Heublein and Garde, are all no more.

"Hartford is famous for having so much torn down," Daniel Sterner, the author of a just-published book about lost buildings in downtown Hartford, said. "It's one thing if you replace one building with another, but when it becomes a parking lot, that's another thing."

Sterner's book, "Vanished Downtown Hartford," provides a tour through the downtown area, chock full of engravings and photos tracing the city's development — and redevelopment — beginning in the early 1800s. He paints a history of a living, breathing downtown area with old buildings being torn down and new ones going up.

But the book quickly raises the thorny issue — and not just for Hartford — facing cities in the 21st century: what should be demolished and what should be saved.

"Not every vanished building from the past could have been saved or even necessarily should have been saved, but by thinking about the great landmarks of Hartford's past, we can better reflect on what should be built in the future and which of today's historic treasures should not be lost," Sterner writes.

The loss of the Hartford-Aetna building — and resulting parking lot — is still a sore spot for preservationists.

"No major city has a surface parking lot in the middle of downtown," said Tomas J. Nenortas, a historic consultant and former associate director of the Hartford Preservation Alliance.

The bank that proposed the 45-story office tower — Society for Savings — may well have believed in its plan. But the bank ran into financial problems soon after the demolition, as New England plunged into a deep recession. Society for Savings was itself acquired by Bank of Boston in 1993.

Over the years, the site was briefly considered for a convention center; and, more seriously, Renaissance Place, a 22-story luxury hotel and office tower. The latter plan, in 2000, died because there simply wasn't enough demand for office space.

Philip A. Schonberger, a partner in Renaissance Place, said the loss of the Hartford-Aetna Building was certainly a blow for downtown.

"Today, it would never happen," Schonberger said. "I can't imagine knocking it down if it were structurally sound."

In the last decade, Schonberger has been a key partner in two major redevelopment projects in downtown Hartford involving old buildings: the conversion of the Richardson Building — once home to the Brown, Thomson & Co. department store — into a hotel; and the conversion and expansion of the former Sage-Allen & Co. department store building into apartments.

Converting old buildings for new uses is almost always more costly than constructing something new, Schonberger said. In the case of the Sage-Allen building on Main Street, the structure had been vacant for years and had deteriorated significantly. Passersby were treated to a stench wafting from inside what was once one of the city's signature stores.

"For a millisecond, we looked at a plan that would have knocked down the entire building," Schonberger said. "But we rejected the entire notion."

The $51 million project — financed heavily with federal, state and city subsidies — took nearly a decade to complete, from conception to the first apartment dwellers moving in, Schonberger said. The most that remains of the original structure is its Classical Renaissance Revival facade.

Preserving The Past