(Reminder: this post is being published well after our visit, we are currently in Portland Oregon until Sept 4th)
On the 5th of July we left D&L’s early headed towards Racine Wisconsin. Doug had work commitments but Larry took a post holiday and followed us up the road.
Racine is the world headquarters of SC Johnson and the site if Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings designed for both the company and the family. It is the only FLW corporate headquarters still in use (unfortunately the FLW buildings are underutilized but given they are
SC Johnson offers free tours three days a week, one just has to reserve in advance. The tours start at their Visitor’s Center which is housed in the Golden Rondelle Theater Which was designed for the 1964 World’s Fair and showed a film sponsored by SC Johnson. After the fair it was dismantled and moved to Racine. It is currently having some exterior work done. Below my picture is how it looked in New York in 1964. I’m not sure why the sculptural elements along the top were removed.
The visual focus of the campus is the Research Tower. Imagine this modern looking Tower was built in the mid 1930s. The glass is actually Pyrex tubes which let in light but obstructed the view since the Scientists needed to be working rather than looking out! You can see some of the original tubes wrapping behind one of the columns in the third picture below.
FLW realized the importance of the car to the future so the tower and the headquarters behind it were raised above the ground and one entered through a set of FLW gates into the car park. This area wasn’t just for cars though, it is a pleasant space with sculptural columns and water features to walk through. Even the water drainage system have a FLW touch!
Pictures aren’t allowed in the Great Hall of the headquarters but below are some I found online. This was likely one of the first open plan offices. Remember this was built before WWII.
After touring the Great Hall, we were allowed to climb up into the Research Tower. The Tower was built before current fire codes as it only has one door in and out. Apparently it proved impossible to make it safe, functional to maintain the architectural purity so the building is sadly only used for storage.
The building was built in 1950. It had a floor and a mezzanine for each of SC Johnson’s different research departments- wax, cleaning products, OFF, etc. As you can see in the diagram and construction photos below it was supported by a central core-this allowed the exterior to be transparent.
The core also housed an elevator of sorts-more like a dumb waiter. The core also had one toilet per floor-men only, guess their weren’t any women scientists.
The space seemed tight to me and we were told that scientists working there complained about the bright light (but no views) and heat gain. So while interesting from an architectural point of view perhaps it wasn’t just the lack of exit stairs that made them stop using the building.
Shhh, I forgot and took these illegal pictures inside.
Despite all of it’s issues, it is still an impressive looking building.
Later generations of the Johnson family have kept up the tradition of hiring famous architects. The latest building on the campus is by Norman Foster and Partners. They recently designed Apple’s new campus as well as a number of Apple stores (including the one in Chicago where We bought my new phone).
The building here is used for receptions, conference & training and employee services (cafeteria, gym, etc.). It also houses several galleries which explore both SC Johnson’s history (including the plane which one of the SC’s used to fly to the location in South American where canuba (as in wax) comes from) and Mr. Wright’s. And of course a gift shop…anyone need a ziploc bag?
After finishing our tour of the headquarters, the three of us headed along the lake and found a great spot to have a picnic lunch made up of leftovers from the 4th of July spread and pizza from our dinner the night before. It was a beautiful day and sitting by the Lake (Michigan-dang it we didn’t make it to Huron so still have one more to visit someday) was wonderful. From there we drove a few more minutes to visit the house FLW designed for Mr. Johnson, “Wingspan.”
The house was designed for a family which included a young son ( hence the crow’s nest at the top) and a daughter (she got a Juliet balcony in her bedroom at the end of the prowlike end of the house)
The house’s first floor is open plan around a central core of fireplaces. All of which is beautifully lit from above by skylights (and yes they apparently leaked😢). The fireplace on the upper level was a vertical fireplace but was only used once. Apparently after lighting the fire, the logs burned beautifully but when the bottoms were turning to ash, the remainder of the logs fell forward into the room almost causing a major fire.
Today, the house is owned by the SC Johnson Foundation and is used for corporate retreats and conferences.
Both the headquarters and the house are well worth a visit (especially since they are free) if you happen to be anywhere close to Racine.
After saying goodbye to Larry who headed back to Mundelein, Mike and I set off towards Spring Green Wisconsin for the finale of our FLW tour, his home and school-Talesin.
So stay tuned!