A trip to the Johnson Wax headquarters

Over the weekend we went to Racine, WI, the home of Johnson Wax. The buildings were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and the one pictured in the photo below is one of only two tall Wright buildings existing today. While we were there we also visited the new Norman Foster building on the Johnson Wax campus.

The Research Building at Johnson Wax headquarters


Norman Foster building at Johnson Wax

The Johnson Wax company makes all sorts of things that you’ve not paid too much attention to: Raid, floor wax, dusting products, that sort of thing. This rather dull business has the advantage of generating consistent sales and a fair bit of brand loyalty. I mean, really, if you know Off works do you want to try some other bug spray just for the hell of it? Probably not. For many, many years SC Johnson has been raking in money and they’ve kept their headquarters in Racine Wisconsin since 18somethingorother. In the 30s they commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build them a new office building and then a few years later he built them a tower to house their scientists doing research.

I’ll start at the office since I don’t actually have many photos of that. It’s still used as an office today and for that reason they won’t let you take photos inside. These are the front doors and you can see into the building pretty clearly. It’s not all that big inside, really, although photos I saw before going made it look larger. You can see that it has no interior walls, everything is supported by these very slim columns. They actually are only slim at the bottom (9 inch diameter) but widen up towards the top and then open up at the very top to a diameter of 18 feet. It makes them look like thumbtacks.

Front doors of the Johnson Wax office

You can see that the office is filled with natural light. That’s because the roof is composed of thousands of glass tubes all glued together. Originally they were made of Pyrex with some sort of binding agent that didn’t handle the cold very well which caused all sorts of leaks. Now they’ve been replaced with acrylic. You can’t really see it in this photo, but all the furniture was designed by Wright too and plays off the interior of the building with the same shapes and three-level design. But without interior shots you’re going to have to take my word for it.

Supporting column and glass tubes

Here you can see one of the supporting columns up close and behind it are the same glass tubes that are used throughout the building for the roof and windows.

Parking structure at the entrance to the office building

The parking structure uses similar support columns and has a very clearly Art Deco-influenced design going on. The section you see here was part of the original construction built in the 1930s, the next photo is just facing the other way, but it’s towards the research building which was built a few years later. You may notice that the ceiling is very low. This is a problem for fire access. I guess it’s okay in this building, but the research building is actually completely surrounded by a large square outer building that has these low entrances. As a result no fire truck can get to the building at all. That, along with the single very narrow fire exit door have meant that the research building was condemned as a fire trap and sits completely empty.

Facing from the parking lot to the research building

Walking down this covered pathway takes you to the research building. The pools to the left are dry now and there’s a fair bit of peeling paint. Apparently they’re going to renovate which is pretty remarkable since the building is just abandoned and kept for the sake of historic value.

Wide column near the entrance to the research building

This is the wide column that’s visible at the far end of the previous photo, just taken from the other side.

Decorative planters near entrance to the research building

This poorly lit photo shows the decorative planters near the entrance to the research building. You can see in the background how there’s a sort of road (parking spots) and then a low building. That low building wraps around the whole research building forming a courtyard. None of it is higher than what you see there, and it’s completely unbroken, so you see what I mean about how fire trucks can’t come through.

Domesticity

Innovation

This being the thirties, Wright wasn’t so PC as we are today. These statues are outside the entrance to the building. The one on the left shows a woman and her daughter carrying baskets. They are all made up of rounded forms and symbolise domesticity. The one on the right shows a man teaching his son to use a bow and arrow. They are angular and symbolise innovation. Um… yeah, you wouldn’t get away with this today.

The base of the research building

Here you can see the base of the research building pretty well. The building is amazing because it’s one of a very few built on a completely cantilevered design, meaning it’s got a central column and all the floors are suspended off that column. Think about that. There are no corner columns holding it up. You can see that in this photo. That central column holds up the whole building. Actually, the column is smaller than that, since what you see there also includes the elevator and stairwell. Looking up you see alternating glass and brick bands. The glass levels are made of those glass tubes and act as the windows for two floors. The brick level is the square floor and then in the middle (which you can sort of see) there’s a round mezzanine floor that looks down onto the brick floor.

You can also see that with this single column design there’s not really an exit available in case of fire. There’s a very narrow staircase leading up and an elevator. I think the first level has offices in it, but presumably that’s because it has an exit to the car park on that level too.

That pretty much sums it up. Or at least is the end of my decent photos. You can also check out Norman Foster’s Fortaleza Hall which is the fancy modern building in the photo at the top of this post.

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