Wright Next Door: Inside an Architectural Treasure Open to the Public for the First Time

Wright Way sign

Yes, there is a street on the S.C. Johnson campus called “Wright Way.”  Your move, Oak Park.

When someone makes it big  in Chicagoland, the people of Chicagoland tend to think of that person as a native son, even if he’s an import. Studs Terkel was from New York. Louis Sullivan, from Boston. And our own beloved Frank Lloyd Wright, who loved Oak Park as much as Ernest Hemingway hated it, was actually born next door in Wisconsin.

Starting this month, one of Wright’s most celebrated treasures is open to the public. And like its creator’s birthplace, it’s just next door. Just past the Mars Cheese Castle, in the threadbare city of Racine.

You’ve no doubt heard of S.J. Johnson & Son, the consumer products company that filled supermarket aisles nationwide with such brands as Ziploc, Windex, Raid and those happy little Scrubbing Bubbles. It has been located in Racine, Wisconsin since 1886.

In the hazy days following the Great Depression, H.F. Johnson Junior decided that running things from an old house was no longer viable, and he decided that the company needed a formal administration building on the campus. Local architect J. Mandor Matson was drafted, and he put together a design for a Beaux Arts office building to satisfy the company’s needs.

But it just wasn’t right.

One day while coming to work and seeing the construction already well underway, Mr. Johnson decided to halt the work. Somehow what was being built wasn’t what the company needed. So he dispatched general manager Jack Ramsey to Chicago.

Ramsay interviewed a number of Chicago firms, describing his company and its needs. Eventually he sent back to Racine this dispatch:

We have right here under our noses a native Wisconsonian who is the absolute father of all modern architecture, who is the outstanding architect in the world today. It would be a crime not to talk to him.

Those two sentences so shaped the future of the S.C. Johnson company that they are written on the wall in a paragraph six feet high at the junction of three very busy pedestrian tunnels that connect the main buildings underneath the Johnson campus. So important, they’re next to the company’s subterranean coffee shop, where everyone will surely see them.

SC Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower

SC Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower

It was because of those words that H.F. Johnson Junior went to Spring Green, Wisconsin to see Frank Lloyd Wright, one of the nation’s first starchitects. As often happens when two strong personalities meet, they didn’t get along. But they found a common bond in automobiles. Both men drove Lincoln Zephyrs. Eventually they also learned they had similar taste in architecture.

Wright was hired, and work began in 1936 on the S.C. Johnson Administration Building. An office building significant enough for a detailed article with lots of pictures in this blog. But this isn’t that article.

SC Johnson Research TowerThis article is about the building a tunnel’s length away, the Research Tower.

The Research Tower opened in 1950, and closed in the 80’s. It stood empty for decades until just about five years ago, when work began to bring it back to its former glory. Tours are now available on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. But before the building opened to the public, we were invited in to see the work behind the scenes.

The Research Tower would not have been possible without the friendship that developed between Wright and Johnson over the Administration Building. Its 15 floors play havoc with your sense of understanding. Every time you think it’s simple and you’ve got it figured out, something complex, daring, or innovative leaps at you.

Brady Roberts

Brady Roberts

Brady Roberts curated the Milwaukee Art Museum’s 2011 retrospective on Frank Lloyd Wright, which S.C. Johnson sponsored. He was brought on board to work with the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation to make sure everything was done right.

“The Research Tower is probably the closest thing to utopian architecture that’s been built. Because it’s such an ideal. The idea that the workspace is a cathedral-like space where the worker can feel inspired. Wright is harmonizing ideas of capitalism with individual self-worth and inspiration. That’s a pretty lofty ideal, and he actually achieved it.”

Utopian in that the building was designed not only as a space for work, but a space that makes someone want to work. That makes you—hold on to your 401(k)—happy to work. And anyone with a home apiary knows happy worker bees are productive worker bees.

Left to right: Gregory Anderegg and Sean Malone

Left to right: Gregory Anderegg and Sean Malone

The building’s scientists quickly churned out such common household items as Pledge furniture polish, Glade air fresheners, Raid bug spray, and OFF! also bug spray. Greg Anderegg, S.J. Johnson’s Director of Global Community Affairs explains, “The use of aerosol cans as a consumer product delivery vehicle was refined in this building, and all in the first eight years that this building was open. So there’s something about this space that is extraordinary that brings out creativity and innovation in the people who worked here.”

One of the ways that Wright sparked creativity in the people working inside this tower was through the use of natural light. What you see as bands of windows running around the building is actually Pyrex glass tubing. 17 miles of it, in 7,000 individual pieces. It not only allows light into the room, it throws it across the room so that the interior spaces aren’t left in the dark because they’re away from the window.

SC Johnson Research Tower

Glass tubes: Great for light. Bad for vision.

Because it’s glass tubing and not sheet glass, the view out the window is obfuscated, leading to more productivity. The downside is that the scientists would occasionally have to wear sunglasses at work in the summer.

“He did create beautiful, inspiration workplaces. Not the most practical ones—I mean it was closed down. It had issues. But it’s such an extraordinary ideal that he envisioned and it was actually built,” says Mr. Roberts.

SC Johnson Research TowerThat is a recurring theme with Wright buildings, though. However groundbreaking and breathtaking they are, they don’t always stand the test of time from a physical standpoint.

“‘The test of time’ in terms of the construction or the engineering, but not in terms of the aesthetics, in which sense I’d say they’re timeless. This is a case where you get someone who is on a very high aesthetic plane, and instead of working in a world that is pragmatic, his emphasis was always on beauty,” says Roberts “It wasn’t the most practical design. I think that’s evidenced by the fact that they had to shut it down. But the work that they did was in terms of deferred maintenance, and not so much about Wright’s design. It was just that the building hadn’t been used in decades.”

SC Johnson Research TowerMr. Anderegg won’t say how much the company spent to restore the Research Tower. “A significant investment. What’s more important to us is to make sure these buildings are preserved and continue to be available, not only for to the public to see, but useful to us as well.”

Two floors of the Research Tower are open to the public. To visit requires a little bit of effort, if you’re a person of size.

That’s because the entire building is cantilevered off of a 13-foot-wide central column. That column not only holds up the entire building, it contains the utilities, the dumbwaiter, and the stairwell. A stairwell similar to the kind you might find in an old Navy vessel on display in dry dock.

SC Johnson Research Tower

A round floor, suspended above a square floor.

It’s this central core that gives the building its magic. When brightly lit from the outside, you can see that each of the buildings square floors contains a second, round floor inside, right behind the glass tubing. Standing on these round floors, you can see what’s happening on the square floor below you.

And since the entire weight of the building and its floors rests on the central column, the glass tubing is able to curve continuously around the entire building. There are no breaks at the corners for support columns. It’s all just pure art for art’s sake.

But the core that made the building a beauty was also its downfall. S.J. Johnson’s research and development department outgrew the building, and when it moved to a vacant hospital nearby, new modern safety, zoning, and accessibility rules kicked in. They are what keeps S.C. Johnson from using the building as offices or for some other purpose. Trying to squeeze your way up the spiral staircase it’s easy to understand why, but upon arriving at your destination, it seems a shame that more can’t be done with so much space.

SC Johnson Research TowerStill, the two floors of the building that are open to the public are a wonderful time capsule. Everything is in place as if the scientists so diligently coming up with ways to control the nation’s bug population just stepped away for lunch. There are enough beakers, test tubes, flasks and curly things to bring Frankenstein to life.

“We tried to recreate the space to give the feel of what was it like to work in the laboratory. We have quite a few photographs in our corporate archives of the building in use. I’m not trying to say it’s an exact replica of what you might see on day one [when the building opened], but it’s a pretty good estimation of what would have been done,” says Anderegg. “There’s quite a bit of the old equipment here that had been shoved away into a closet because it was no longer in use, and we were able to find it, and put it back where it started.” What S.C. Johnson couldn’t find in its own storage spaces, it managed to scavenge from eBay.

SC Johnson Research Tower

Art Deco/Moderne-style light fixture in the Research Tower

The light fixtures inside, and the building’s curving presence outside make it seem unlike the Prairie School architecture we’re used to from Wright. In fact, it seems very art deco. So, is it the ultimate expression of the Wright style? Sean Malone, president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation doesn’t think so.

“It’s certainly an evolution of what he was doing. But Wright had numerous evolutions throughout his career. When he was talking about organic architecture he was talking about it being appropriate to time, place and man. What’s appropriate for that era? What’s appropriate for that location? What’s appropriate for the people who are going to be using it—its function, its purpose, what’s trying to happen. And in that way, this building is extraordinarily organic. It’s all about what’s the purpose of this building. What did SC Johnson want to accomplish with this space, and how could this space help them do that?”

SC Johnson Research TowerRoberts notes, “For Chicagoans, come from Chicago to Racine to Milwaukee, Madison, Spring Green… You can complete your understanding of Frank Lloyd Wright. Chicago has a great chapter, but there’s a second chapter in Wisconsin.”

The Johnson campus offers a lot of architecture for such a short drive, including some non-Wright treats. The tour is free, but you have to make reservations on the company’s web site.


Author: Editor

Editor founded the Chicago Architecture Blog in 2003, after a long career in journalism. He can be reached at chicagoarchitectureinfo@gmail.com.

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