Zurich's Enge district, part 1 - The cradle of the modern insurance industry

Zurich's Enge district has been home to Swiss Re's head office for over a hundred years. This is no accident. The history of our firm is closely associated with two individuals from its founding days, men whose lasting legacies continue to shape the economy and the face of the city and the district to this day: the politician and business pioneer Alfred Escher and Zurich's then city engineer, Arnold Bürkli.

Nestled in a sumptuous park in the city's Enge district lies the stately Belvoir mansion. The Escher family home, it was also an illustrious gathering place for the business, cultural and political elite in the 19th century. Alfred Escher (1819–1882) was one of the most successful business leaders in Swiss history, and also among the most controversial. One of his most important achievements was to link Switzerland to the international rail network, including by building the Gotthard railway line. It became evident, however, that Swiss capital would be soon be unable to keep up with the funding requirements of the railways. And so, in 1856, Escher founded Schweizerische Kreditanstalt in Zurich with German investors, laying the cornerstone for Zurich's future role as Switzerland's main financial and insurance centre. In its early years, Schweizerische Kreditanstalt, now Credit Suisse, played a significant part in the founding of Schweizerische Rückversicherungs-Gesellschaft, today's Swiss Re.

Imposing buildings dominate the new quayside cityscape

Zurich evolved into a city of trade and commerce during the era. The existing infrastructure – the narrow lanes, and the bridges unsuitable for vehicular traffic – no longer met the requirements of the day. The city appointed Arnold Bürkli, aged 28, as its new city engineer and tasked him with redesigning Zurich's urban infrastructure. In 1863, the Zurich city council voted to redraw the shoreline along the lower lake basin, with a new quayside park to be built. Arnold Bürkli prevailed with his vision to showcase the natural beauty of Zurich and to upgrade Zurich from a riverside identity and focus to a "city by the lake", leading, between 1882 and 1887, to arguably the most sweeping changes ever made to Zurich's infrastructure in the history of the city's urban development.

Grand buildings rose on the land newly reclaimed from the lake. New developments included the Weisse Schloss and the Rote Schloss, two luxurious apartment buildings styled after Loire castles, and the Tonhalle concert hall inspired by the Trocadéro in Paris. French taste and the Parisian lifestyle were seen as the height of refinement by the middle classes then. Extending the row of magnificent residential buildings and cultural venues lining Alpenquai and Utoquai, impressive new head offices were commissioned by the insurance firms, beginning in 1897 with Rentenanstalt and its then headquarters on Alpenquai, and Zurich Accident Insurance following in 1899–1901 to newly built Mythenquai. In anticipation of its own plans, Swiss Re also purchased land there, near Enge harbour. At this site in 1913 Swiss Re would inaugurate the first of its very own office buildings, its workforce numbering over 200 by then.

The sustained phase of strong economic growth from about 1855 confirmed the expectations that had driven the city's expansion projects of 1883. According to a tax census of 1886, Enge was the wealthiest among the municipalities to merge into "metropolitan Zurich" in 1883, at CHF 9 440 in mean per-capita wealth.