The SC Johnson headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin is a peculiar little enclave. The company’s heritage campus includes its iconic, Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Research Tower and Administration Building, as well as the Golden Rondelle Theater, transplanted from the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair, and Fortaleza Hall, an oval glass modernist memorial completed in 2010. Not exactly an Emerald City, but instead a duchy dominated by Wright’s Cherokee Red, the SC Johnson complex is situated south of Racine’s downtown, bordered by residential neighborhoods suffering postindustrial decay. Its smooth brick walls and low fencing politely but firmly divide its lawns and walkways from any struggle that may be going on down the adjacent streets.
This past Sunday, my wife Amy and I took the free, two-hour tour that SC Johnson began offering earlier this year — which includes, for the first time ever, some access inside the just-renovated Research Tower. At noon, a polished and well-prepared college student named Morgan greeted us and perhaps a dozen others inside the Golden Rondelle’s lobby, next to a large sign declaring that no interior photography is permitted. Video, she added, is prohibited entirely. With that, we started off for the front of the 15-floor Research Tower.
Both of the Wright buildings give the odd impression of being just slightly less than full size — as if they are models, or designed for people a few inches shorter than the standard human.
The Research Tower stands like a lonely stack of blocks in the center of a square courtyard/parking lot. It is flanked by the Nakoma and Nakomis sculptures commissioned by H.F. Johnson, Jr. in 1976 and installed in ’79. The statues are a realization of figures Wright designed in 1923 as part of his plan for the clubhouse of Nakoma Country Club in Madison, Wisconsin, inspired by Native American motifs.
Nakoma, the domestic goddess to the left, is composed of curves and spheres. On the right, Nakomis — all straight lines and angles — is a warrior “teaching his young son to take the bow to the Sun God,” according to Wright’s description.
Surrealism sets in right away. These massive and practically sacred sculptures, carved from Cold Spring, Minnesota granite over two years, are standing in low flower beds representing SC Johnson’s signature products — Raid® insecticide, Glade® air freshener, OFF!® insect repellent, and Pledge® furniture spray. That such a disconnect serves as the gateway to the brain stem of the company campus is just breathtaking. While entering the narrow door in the building’s base, one tries to swat away mental images of noble Native Americans spraying aerosol cans.
The third and fourth floors of the Research Tower have been restored as 1950s laboratories with soapstone counters and sinks, vintage glassware and instruments. (See the photo gallery by Chicago Tribune photographer Bill Hogan for some good interior shots.) Between the beakers and test tubes, scales and microscopes, are documents from the era — tense correspondence between Mr. Johnson and Mr. Wright, notated sketches of cute cartoon bugs to be asphyxiated by a shot of Raid®. The tiny, aircraft-sized bathroom tucked into the building’s central shaft displays a can of Glade® air freshener atop its toilet tank. Once again, there’s a sense of juxtaposition. All these shiny tools and bright minds were not engaged in curing polio or perfecting the microchip or sending rockets into space, but in finding better ways to dust furniture, kill bugs dead, or mask offensive odors.
Both floors — the fourth is a circular mezzanine above the square third floor — feel something like an extended, looped kitchen, with a walkway in front of counters and sinks. Along the outer wall is a backsplash, often with a shelf, and above that, Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous windows, made of stacked Pyrex glass tubes. As such, the windows diffuse the outside light while effectively obscuring any view out or in — similar to a glass block.
Think about this for a moment. Here in flat Racine, above the very low-profile landscape and just eight blocks from majestic Lake Michigan, Johnson and Wright, as a bold statement, build a 15-story tower that you can’t look out of. Company scientists and researchers have to enter through the narrow metal door and climb a cramped spiral staircase to work in these rather confined laboratories up in the air with no view. Worse, because the sealant between the glass tubes fails, freezing Wisconsin wind and rain penetrate between the tubes, hampering the science going on within. Flat glass plates (used as windows in the rest of the world) are eventually installed inside the tubes to deflect the elements. Then, these glass plates are covered with foil to thwart the intense solar energy which threatens to wither the researchers, much like the insects they’re gassing.
From the Research Tower, we passed accross a low, covered plaza past a reflecting pool and through a carport to Wright’s even more famous Administration Building, which opened in 1939, eleven years before the tower. Photography from the carport looking through the glass entrance doors is not permitted.
Having seen the building’s Great Workroom and its supporting “lily pad” columns many times in photographs but never in person, my impression was again that things seemed slightly smaller than expected. The Great Workroom is a cross between an elegant hotel lobby and a mid-century modern library. Golden “bird cage” elevators flank the entrance. The clay-pink carpeting is low and dense like a pencil eraser. The Wright-designed maple desks mimic the room’s three-level design. His revolutionary cream-colored lily pad (or “golf tee”) support columns — usually photographed from an upper corner of the room to accentuate their height — seem much less intimidating at floor level. The overall impression is of a sophisticated, warm and cozy beehive with zero privacy. Working here would mean never putting your feet up on your desk or leaning your chair back. The four-legged chairs of metal tubing that Wright designed (after his three-legged models proved prone to tipping over) do have a self-adjusting back support, and they feel like they would be comfortable — at least at first.
Between the circular tops of the lily pad columns, Wright’s glass tubes have been replaced by plexiglass light diffusion, again on account of the tubes leaking. Comparing the success of designs championed by Frank Lloyd Wright against those of, say, Steve Jobs, you begin to suspect that maybe Wright should have focussed as much on usability as he did aesthetics.
The third and final building on our tour was Fortaleza Hall, a big oval glass showroom designed by Foster + Partners, the British architectural firm that also reconstructed London’s Wembley Stadium and Berlin’s Reichstag building.
The structure is named for Fortaleza, Brazil, home to the Carnauba palm which produces Carnauba wax, the “queen of waxes.” In 1935, Herbert Fisk Johnson, Jr., the grandson of the company’s founder, flew a Sikorsky S-38 amphibious plane from Racine to northeastern Brazil on a mission to secure a source of Carnauba wax for the company, then suffering in the Great Depression. The trip turned the company’s fortunes around. Sixty-three years later, in 1998, Samuel Curtis Johnson, Jr., the founder’s great-grandson, recreated his father’s 7,500-mile journey in a custom-built replica of the original plane named “The Spirit Of Carnauba.”
Fortaleza Hall, in turn, is a memorial to Sam erected by his son Fisk Johnson, the great-great-grandson of the founder and SC Johnson’s current Chairman and CEO. The plane is suspended in the air as its centerpiece. Below the plane, a huge map of the Western Hemisphere has been painstakingly constructed as a mosaic of wooden parquet. (Company founder Samuel Curtis Johnson, Sr. bought a parquet flooring business in Racine before developing his floor waxes.) The route from Racine to Fortaleza is highlighted in gold.
The monumental nature of the building intensifies as you descend the curving, white staircase past carved quotes from Sam Johnson — the great-grandson, I believe, but the various Johnsons become increasingly easy to confuse. Down below, in an exhibit room off the main floor, a handy display identifies the generations of Johnsons with photos, and a video screen shows wreckage of the original plane, which sank to the bottom of an Indonesian bay in 1938. As far as I can make out, no Johnsons were with the plane when it was lost.
Extending out from one end of this exhibit room is a long, gradually ascending hallway showcasing the company’s history in displays on both sides, beginning with cans and tins of the earliest Johnson floor waxes, past the Raid® and Pledge® era, and all the way into the Ziploc® and Windex® years. The walk climaxes at a shelving unit loaded from top to bottom with SC Johnson products, looking much like any supermarket shelf anywhere. There, the SC Johnson story abruptly dead-ends. A security guard discourages you from considering the closed doors connecting other buildings by tunnel. You must now turn and walk all the way back down through Johnson history to the beginning.
After crossing the giant map, the tour finishes with another exhibit space — currently featuring a few slightly stained furnishings from one or more of Wright’s various Taliesin estates — and a chance to purchase items in the company’s “Lily Pad” gift shop. Besides some discounted SC Johnson products ($2 each, mix and match up to 10), there are the three small picture books by former Journal Times photographer Mark Hertzberg:
- Wright in Racine: The Architect’s Vision for One American City
- Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hardy House, and
- Frank Lloyd Wright’s SC Johnson Research Tower
Additionally, there’s the 1998 Ken Burns documentary Frank Lloyd Wright in DVD form, several coaster sets, T-shirts, Frank Lloyd Wright neckties, pens, stuffed Raid® insects, educational card decks, and so on.
The item that struck me as a little weird, though, was the glass beaker sporting a black Raid® logo for $15. Where and why would someone want to display this? Or are you just supposed to add it to your other kitchen measuring cups?
Nevertheless, this was a fascinating two hours, and I recommend taking a tour whether you live in the Racine area, or are just visiting.
One of the other couples with us on Sunday said they were passing through after selling their Mercer Island, Washington home and buying an Airstream trailer with which to tour the United States for a year. They are Bruce and Sue, and their blog — at Traverse.US.com — is a vicarious treat.