On the Road: The Johnson Wax Building and Wingspread
text and photos by Robyn Arn
Racine, Wisconsin, is a lovely city on the shores of Lake Michigan with some very nice architecture.
I have wanted to visit for quite some time to see one of the most impressive corporate campuses in the country and to behold the amazing home of the man who had it built.
The SC Johnson company started this ode to architecture in 1936 under the third generation leadership of H.F. Johnson, Jr. Though another design was in the works Johnson decided he wouldn’t settle for a good office building, and, wanting the best in the world, sought out Frank Lloyd Wright.
Campus tour guests are checked in at the Golden Rondelle building which was designed for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. After the fair it was brought home to Racine, re-designed by Taliesin Associated Architects, and is still used for film screenings.
The administration building, featuring those gorgeous dendriform columns and Pyrex glass tubing (43 miles of it!), opened in 1939. Since no interior photos are allowed I’m using vintage shots (trust me, it looks exactly the same).
We were allowed to take photographs on the walkway between the administration building and the tower where you can see the dendriforms repeated in smaller scale.
The cantilevered research tower (the early trunk / taproot prototype for our Price Tower in Bartlesville) was finished in 1950. The Pyrex tubing really is a beautiful engineering feat and kudos to the company for restoring them all with new, more efficient caulking. Typical that FLW was designing something before materials were available to make them practical.
The current Johnson atmosphere is attractive and welcoming (tours are well organized and informative) but a tiny bit unnerving. They’re paranoid about competition and you’re constantly observed and escorted by security. In the picture above Security is on the left, Tour Guide (in their standard issue uniform) on the right. However, they do make up for that awkwardness with all the fascinating history on display (it really is like a museum) and of course those amazing preserved buildings.
Wingspread, the 1939 home Wright designed for Johnson, Jr., is a wondrous place. As you wind down the drive you’re immediately charmed by the gorgeously landscaped grounds dotted with fabulous sculptures.
Johnson was on his second marriage as the house was being built. He had two children from his first, Karen and Sam, and his new wife Esther would bring two boys into the household. The unique layout of a grand central living room with four wings extending was created to give all the children their own area. The second wing was devoted as the master, the third was for the kitchen and servants, and the fourth was guest quarters and covered parking slots (the slots are now enclosed and are used for administration). Sadly, Esther died in 1938 before construction was completed and the stepsons were not raised in the home.
This room with the sweet view is in the master wing.
The massive center chimney in the living room accommodates five fireplaces: four on the main level and one on the second.
The second level fireplace, though beautiful to look at, was unusable as the tall logs would collapse into the room.
While on the second level I noticed the same unique cut plywood floors Wright had in the Taliesin Hillside studio. I thought they were so lovely and am glad they’re in this house, too.
This is Karen’s bedroom. She ended up having several rooms on the second level including her specially designed Romeo and Juliet balcony.
Her brother, Sammy, also had a specially designed spot: a lookout tower with a commanding view of the property. It’s accessed by this winding staircase on the chimney side.
Of course this home had all the bells and whistles available at the time. I especially loved the “jukebox” and the copper switch panel.
Johnson started dating the actress Irene Purcell around the time the house was finished. In 1941 they married and it soon became apparent the house did not agree with her. She especially did not agree with Mr. Wright. He came for a visit one time and noticed Purcell had rearranged the furnishings. He promptly put all items back the way he intended. Shortly after, another house was being built on the property to suit her tastes. In 1959 they turned Wingspread into a conference facility which hosts all sorts of dignitaries (I saw President Jimmy Carter in one photo). I truly adored this place and the freedom we were given to explore the public spaces on our own after the official tour.
As I left Racine that afternoon the sun was starting to set. Already content with the day’s events, I even got a beautiful parting gift.