Pity the SC Johnson employees, the 175 poor souls in marketing and sales that are relocating from its global headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin, to a regional office in Chicago that opened last fall. Such a move would normally seem like an indisputable upgrade, a grand opportunity to make a new, exciting life in the big city—but in this case those workers are leaving behind the splendor of a landmark campus largely designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in exchange for leased space in a West Loop high-rise that the notoriously censorious Wright would probably deem conventional at best.
The extent of the SC Johnson staffers’ misfortune was immediately evident on a recent Sunday-afternoon tour of the company’s Racine HQ. Nestled near the Lake Michigan shoreline about 75 miles north of Chicago, the campus has a preserved, museumlike quality, in part the result of a $30 million restoration effort the company completed about two years ago. The property’s been so meticulously maintained that it’s difficult to imagine much actual business gets done there. Visitors approaching from sleepy 14th Street were assured they’d arrived in the right place as the gleaming Golden Rondelle Theater came into view; the stunning space-age clamshell structure originally built as the SC Johnson Pavilion for the 1964-’65 New York World’s Fair was later reassembled on the company’s grounds by Taliesin Associated Architects, the firm conceived by Wright as a way for the students of his schools in Spring Green, Wisconsin, and Scottsdale, Arizona, to carry on his vision after his death.
To be sure, Chicago-area residents have no shortage of access to Wright’s work, from Robie House in Hyde Park to his own home and studio in Oak Park—and that’s especially true with programming and tours ramping up as the 150th anniversary of Wright’s June 8 birth approaches. Still, architecture buffs will find the short trip to Racine worthwhile, if only to experience two of Wright’s most notable commercial creations: the dazzling Johnson Administration Building (1939) and its later vertical companion, the exceptional but troubled Research Tower (1950) that was opened for the first time to public tours in 2014, more than 30 years after it was decommissioned.
Wright outfitted both structures with his trademark “Cherokee Red” brick, and in place of traditional glass for the windows he filled the gaps with rows of custom-made translucent Pyrex tubes that filter in light but don’t allow clear views out. Their unusual exteriors make the buildings seem just the sort of places chemical-based household products such as Drano, Windex, and Shout are created, marketed, and sold. At the same time, they subvert some of Wright’s fundamental principles for residential architecture—that designs exist in harmony with nature, that a house blend seamlessly into its environment.
“Many of his public buildings, by contrast, were introverted, shutting out their surroundings and celebrating the interior space instead,” wrote Mark Hertzberg, a Wisconsin journalist and photographer, in his 2004 book Wright in Racine. Wright so disliked the industrial area surrounding the Johnson property that he initially attempted to convince Herbert Fisk Johnson Jr., the third-generation head of SC Johnson, to move the company out of Racine and adopt a version of the Broadacre City plan—Wright’s vision of a utopian community oriented horizontally (a foil to the traditional vertical city) that incorporated ideas about employee housing in addition to the desired company building. Johnson ultimately made it clear he had no interest in moving the headquarters or his workers.
“So [Wright] turned to the one thing that was abundant, which was the natural lighting,” said the twentysomething woman guiding the free 90-minute SC Johnson tour. (Tours are offered Thursday through Sunday at 10 AM and 2 PM.) She rattled off facts about Wright’s buildings with the authoritative reflexiveness of an airline attendant performing a preflight announcement routine. “He installed the tubes so that he would get that lighting that he wanted but so the workers couldn’t see outside into the ugly Racine landscape. He then justified it by saying the workers should be focused on their work anyway and not distracted by looking outside.”
Ironically, it was an overabundance of natural light that became the Achilles heel of Wright’s doomed Research Tower. The edifice is wrapped in bands of brick (the main floors, which are square shaped) alternating with bands of Pyrex tubing (the circular “mezzanine” floors). Now that the tower is essentially a museum piece, tour groups are permitted to ascend to the third level’s main and mezzanine floors to look at a kind of laboratory diorama—test tubes and beakers are arranged next to press materials heralding the building’s dynamism, as well as often tense correspondence between Wright and Johnson, who feared the drastic cost overruns that burdened the construction of the Administration Building.
Shortly after entering the tower, even on the overcast day of my visit, it was literally blindingly apparent why scientists eventually requested sunglasses to endure working in the building. All the light pollution also made the poorly ventilated structure unbearably hot, especially during the summer. The tubing was notoriously leaky in spots as well. Moreover, strong winds caused the tower to tilt slightly, resulting in inaccurate lab measurements. But the primary reason SC Johnson decided to close the tower in 1981 and consolidate R&D in the former Saint Mary’s Hospital on campus was due to fire code: the structure has only one narrow main exit—a 29-inch-wide, steep, twisting staircase that posed a danger to employees in a building where open-flame experiments were being conducted.
The Research Tower may have been a functional nightmare, but it was a formally daring move for Wright. At 153 feet, the 15-story building is one of the tallest towers built on the cantilever principle. It was the architect’s first application of his concept of the “taproot” structure, in which a center core holds up the rest of the building, like a pine tree supports its branches; in this case, a concrete core 13 feet in diameter is sunk 54 feet into the ground. And while the tower was unpopular with those who labored inside it, it was the site of the development of some of SC Johnson’s most successful and enduring brands, including Raid, Glade, Off!, and Pledge. “They all got hatched up when the tower was there,” Samuel C. Johnson, the now deceased fourth-generation chairman and CEO of the company, told Hertzberg. “Who’s to say that wasn’t the Wright influence?”
Some 32 years after the Research Tower was shut down, the Administration Building that preceded it by more than a decade continues to be where much Johnson business is conducted each day. “This new building,” Wright told the Racine Journal Times in a preview of the opening cited by Hertzberg, “will be simply and sincerely an interpretation of modern business conditions designed to be as inspiring to live in and work in as any cathedral ever was to worship in.” The centerpiece—and the supreme highlight of Wright’s Johnson campus—is the Great Workroom, an immense yet elegant open office on the ground level. The space is broken up at regular intervals by off-white concrete columns that broaden out from an impossibly slim nine inches on the floor before being capped on the ceiling by a load-bearing disk 18 feet in diameter. Sunlight spills in from skylights between the columns, which have been compared to everything from mushrooms to lily pads to golf tees but are more accurately described as “dendriform,” or treelike. “Mr. Wright actually envisioned this whole space as if employees are working in a great forest with the columns being the trees,” the Johnson tour guide said, “the tubing being the leaves, and the light streaming through the leaves to make it a more natural working environment.” Wright also designed more than 40 pieces of furniture for the building in line with his “organic architecture” philosophy, which dictates that furnishings share the same conceptual principles as the structure they occupy.
On the Administration Building’s third floor sits H.F. Johnson Jr.’s office, which seems rather modest by the standards of today’s CEOs. The room’s handsome wood, gorgeous built-in shelving, and Cherokee Red brick fireplace would befit the den of one of Wright’s residences. A few months into construction, Johnson remarked that he thought the building was so appealing that “I think I’ll just put a cot in my office and live there.” To which Wright replied that he would build Johnson a house.
That’s the origin story of Wingspread (1937), Wright’s last Prairie-style house, located on a vast acreage six miles north of Racine in Wind Point, Wisconsin. The residence has four distinct wings zoned by function and built around an octagonal domed living room, the center of which is a massive chimney that branches into five fireplaces. The Johnson family lived there through the 1950s, and it’s now owned by the family’s foundation and used as a conference center. Hour-long tours of Wingspread are free, available Wednesday through Sunday (barring the occasional special event), and highly recommended as a companion to the SC Johnson jaunt—after you come to grasp Wright’s accomplishments in the commercial sphere, Wingspread offers a glimpse of the genius at work in the residential realm during roughly the same period.
The tour of the SC Johnson grounds concludes at the jarringly contemporary Fortaleza Hall, a 2010 building that wasn’t designed by Wright or one of his Taliesin school apprentices but by the British architect Norman Foster. It houses slender exhibits that attempt to tell the 131-year history of the company—a story few tourgoers seemed interested in exploring. On display in one room is a scale replica of the biplane in which the company’s president flew on a 1935 trip to Brazil in search of a sustainable source of wax for the company’s floor-care products. The aircraft was met mostly with blank stares.
At one end of the building is the gift shop, which sells an odd assortment of SC Johnson products, displayed earnestly as objets d’art, next to a first-rate selection of Wright merch. “Who’s buying the Raid?” the clerk behind the counter was asked as she rang up a pair of Wright books and a pack of greeting cards inspired by the architect. “You know,” she said, “I’ve worked here for two years and maybe sold one can of the stuff.” If there was any question as to which man—Samuel Curtis Johnson or Frank Lloyd Wright—the guests that day had come to admire, it was settled once and for all in the checkout line. v