The SC Johnson headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin, features two of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most prominent, non-residential designs: The Administration Building (1939) and the Research Tower (1950). LIFE magazine said the office was “the shape of things to come” when it opened in 1939. All images provided by SC Johnson unless otherwise noted.
There’s nothing particularly revelatory about the open-plan office, especially considering the constant flux found in modern workplace design. But far outside the corridors of high-tech industry and startup spaces, one company headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin, still provides a dashing vision of the modern American workplace, despite having recently celebrated its 75th anniversary. The SC Johnson Administration Building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, eschews business clichés: workers are greeted by a streamlined, muscular exterior made from ribbons of glass and brick, more campus than corporate, before entering a light-filled interior, with rows of organic, curved columns creating an abstract forest surrounding the secretary pool. Open for tours, including special bus trips that coincide with the Chicago Architecture Biennial, these landmark structures still offer a singular view of the office (and look fresh after undergoing a recent eight-year, $30 million restoration). The soft lines and cathedral-like air inside suggests that, if the office furniture was removed, it would feel less like a place of work than one of contemplation and reflection.
Two images of the Great Workroom; administrators would work on the upper Mezzanine level, affording views of the staff working below.
Fittingly, Wright’s client for these structures, the SC Johnson Company, was led by executives able to match his flair for showmanship and self-promotion. Herbert F. “Hib” Johnson, the head of the family business during the construction of both Wright buildings, made a name for himself early on in his tenure, rescuing the company during the Depression with a daring marketing plan. He sent 28,000 cases of the company’s new product, a self-polishing floor wax called Glo-Coat, to store owners on his dime, and said they could sell it and pay him when they could, or return it as they wish. That gamble paid off, helping the company bounce back from an early ’30s sales slump.
Johnson met Wright in 1936, while he was in pursuit of a new, modern office building. He soon awarded the commission to Wright, despite the fact that ground was already broken on a new facility. Working with Wright was, as many other clients learned, also a gamble. Estimated to cost $200,000, the building required SC Johnson to sink nearly $1.2 million into construction before it was finished, all while enduring countless delays due to the construction headaches of creating such a complex new structure. Seeing how Johnson later hired Wright to build his own home, Wingspread, he seemed comfortable with the architect’s process, as long as the results bore out his faith (and funding). “In my own mind, I say that if one is in mind to build, the building should be good or none at all,” Johnson said.
Frank Lloyd Wright and Herbert F. “Hib” Johnson admiring the completed Research Tower in 1953.
Wright’s plan was to create a light-filled, collective workspace that blocked views of the surrounding industrial landscape and created a holistic workspace; in 1936, he wrote
that instead of the Bauhaus idea of form follows function, form and function should be one. A centerpiece of his scheme was a series of inventive columns, which ran through what was to be called the Administration Building as well as the covered car park. While they later became celebrated as progressive feats of structural engineering, at the time, the design led to serious construction delays.
Members of the Wisconsin Industrial Commission didn’t believe Wright’s revolutionary, mushroom-like columns could support that kind of weight he suggested. Wright’s steel-and-mesh columns of reinforced concrete started at a small crow’s foot, rose through a widening stem, and then attached to the ceiling with a hollow, ringed band he called a calyx: the natural references explain why he called the towering structures “dendriform,” or tree-like. Bureaucrats weren’t as touched or sold on these poetic feats of engineering, and certainly didn’t believe these weird columns, which were 90-inches at the base and 18.5 feet across at the ceiling, could hold 12 tons of weight each.
To appease his critics, Wright staged his own test, dumping sandbags on top of a column at the construction site to prove its strength. Once workers reached 12 tons, they paused. Wright told them to continue, standing underneath the structure and tapping it with his cane for effect. Construction crews eventually loaded 60 tons of material atop the lone column, stopping not because the column broke, but because they ran out of space on top to add more weight. Wright was given his building permit.
Wright and HF Johnson looking on as workers test one of the dendiform columns.
With supports in place, Wright turned to lighting, again departing with tradition. To block views but allow in sunlight, Wright experimented with a variety of solution before settling on Pyrex tubes. By setting a slanted series of glass piping above the workers, Wright created a sun-lit space that, through distorted, made the forest of columns seem even more fantastical, self-contained and organic. The 43 miles of Pyrex tubes weren’t a perfect fit; the sealant used to join them cracked, allowing enough rain and melted snow to leak into the building that maintenance workers set up regular “bucket brigades” to catch leaks. (the leaks were eventually fixed with a new sealant).
When realized, Wright’s design resulted in one of the more singular workspaces in corporate American history. The Great Workroom, as the main floor of the Administration Building is called, spans a half acre, meant to promote efficiency and direct access between the roughly 200 employees. The curved desks, which include rounded drawers and special posture chairs designed by Wright himself, sit within a forest of columns, which workers nicknamed mushrooms or golf tees. The constant repetition of curves, from desks to drawers to the outlines of the mezzanine balconies, recall the building’s own streamlined profile.
Every aspect of the space bears Wright’s touch, and the results of his philosophies on space and the environment. His dislike of enclosed spaces led to the fashioned of two “bird cage” elevators, a mesh of brass rods that silently conveys employees from the basement to the high-powered offices of the executive level. A specific shade, Cherokee Red, dominates the interior and exterior and highlights the curvaceous brick walls, which required the creation of nearly 200 special shapes to build according to Wright’s specifications.
Wright told LIFE magazine that the building “was designed to be an inspiring a place to work in as any cathedral was designed to worship in. ” Others were even more effusive. The financial editor of the Milwaukee Journal said, “It is like a woman swimming naked in a stream. Cool, gliding, musical in movement and in manner.”
While the Administration Building shows Wright at his best—confident and brash, building off lofty ideals and ingenious solutions—the Research Tower finds him stretching out and literally digging in to find an ingenious means of structural support. But first, he had to convince a company aware of his budget over-runs to pony up for another project. SC Johnson inadvertently roped in Wright in 1943, without initially intending to support what would become a local landmark. During the height of the war, H.F. Johnson and the company’s R&D director decided they would need new lab facilities to expand their production capabilities. Not wanting to clash with Wright’s original vision, Johnson ran their preliminary blueprints for a two-story facility by Wright. He stressed he didn’t want the “financial and construction nightmare” of the administration building, but wanted to respect the relationship with the visionary architect.
The glow of the Research Tower at night.
Wright didn’t share his vision, especially when it came to the scope of the squat, functional lab. “Let us, for God’s sake, honor our labor pains,” wrote Wright, adopting a flourish and sentimentality that would become common during a years-long letter-writing campaign to woo the wax magnate. He added that “every building is an opportunity to do the right thing in every direction.” Years of correspondence finally convinced Johnson to meet with and agree to Wright’s plans, which he, a master of understatement, sold as “a tower standing as a beacon to the world for SC Johnson.” Johnson, who would be proven right in his reticence when the budget leapt from $900,000 to $4.5 million, even framed his favorite letter from the exchange and hung it on his wall.
A closer look at the top of the Research Tower shows the “tree-branch” design, which alternates circular mezzanine floors with full-sized research floors.
The end result appears to have justified the price of postage. Wright’s Research Tower not only put the SC Johnson headquarters in the spotlight again for having one of the most modern offices in the world (LIFE effusively praised the striking “Heliolab”), but became the birthplace of the company’s most iconic products, household staples including Raid, Glade, OFF! and Pledge.
For such a space-age structure, Wright’s Research Tower drew its inspiration from nature. The 153-foot high, 15-story research center was built based on a “taproot” system. A core of elevators, heating, and ductwork formed a spine at the center on the tower, supported by a foundation sunk 54-feet-deep into the ground. Disc-shaped mezzanines branched off the core, alternating with full sized, 40-foot wide floors. The effect is of a tree enclosed in glass. Wright felt inspiration and invention would happen at the top floors of the facility and trickle down, eventually finding its way to the Administration Building and factory.
A researcher’s workspace in the tower, surrounded on two sides by the curved wall of Pyrex tubes.
Not shy about the company’s location, and its lack of a pristine, natural landscape, Wright decided to focus inward and “capture” nature while blocking views of nearby factories. His solution was walls of horizontal Pyrex tubes, the same used in the Administration Building, which let in sunlight but blocked the view. This arrangement produces stunning views from outside, especially at night, when the shape of the 7,000 tubes appears to bend internal light inward on each floor. It also produced an uncomfortable workspace for scientists, who were blinded by a surfeit of sunlight and requested sunglasses until a curtain system could be installed. Despite those inconveniences, the building was in use until 1982, when new fire codes made the single, winding 29-inch staircase obsolete and unfeasible.
While all of Wright’s construction projects ballooned over budget, in retrospect, they seem to have been more than worth the investment. Considered among his masterpieces, they are either in use (Administration Building) or lovingly set up for guests (Research Tower) that allows an opportunity to experience the space as the architect intended (minus leaking ceilings and blinding sunlight). While the campus has since expanded, with the Norman Foster-designed Fortaleza Hall opening in 2010, the Wright buildings still seem cutting edge. In an era of shifting design trends, that’s quite an accomplishment.
Tours of the SC Johnson campus, and the two structures on the National Register of Historic Places, are free and open to the public. During the Chicago Architecture Biennial, free bus transportation is available from the Chicago Cultural Center Thursdays through Sundays until January 3. Trips also include a visit to Wingspread, the 1939 Prairie-style mansion Wright designed for H.F. Johnson.