The products SC Johnson (Johnson Wax) manufactures are probably familiar to most, as they include household staples like Windex cleaner, OFF! insect repellent, and (my favorite for packing) Ziploc storage bags. However, fewer people realize that the SC Johnson headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin, features buildings designed by star architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Norman Foster.
The SC Johnson architecture tour provides a glimpse inside these architectural gems.
Wright and more on the SC Johnson architecture tour
SC Johnson is and always has been a family-owned company. That seems to have resulted in a corporate culture that values both employees and innovation.
It’s a culture that takes physical form in SC Johnson’s marquee buildings.
Touring the SC Johnson headquarters
The serene-looking SC Johnson (Johnson Wax) headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin, isn’t open to casual visitors. This is a working campus that houses administrative and research staff. However, regularly scheduled architecture tours are available to the general public.
The SC Johnson architecture tour explores the company’s history while providing limited access to four architecturally significant buildings: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Administration Building and Research Tower, Norman Foster + Partners’ Fortaleza Hall, and the Golden Rondelle Theater.
The Wright buildings are of particular significance, as Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy is often seen in terms of residential architecture. However, some of his most innovative work was for public and corporate clients. The SC Johnson architectural tour is an opportunity to see two unusual examples of that work.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy at SC Johnson
Under the leadership of H. F. “Hib” Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright was contracted to build two signature buildings for the SC Johnson headquarters. The first of these was the Administration building, completed in 1939. Wright’s Research Tower followed a decade later.
From a distance, those buildings are an understated sweep of curving red brick walls and planes. It’s almost a topography map of southern Wisconsin, with gentle hills (Wright’s Administration Building) punctuated by a single rocky outcrop (the Research Tower).
The tower draws you toward it and, on our tour, everyone immediately migrated that direction.
However, we were quickly herded in a different direction, our guide moving us toward the unobtrusive entrance to the Administration Building.
The SC Johnson Administration Building
Ground had already been broken for a new office building when Hib Johnson decided he wanted a more modern structure than what was planned. He later explained his decision by saying:
“Anybody can build a typical building. I wanted to build the best office building in the world, and the only way to do that was to get the greatest architect in the world.” (SC Johnson website)
He hired Frank Lloyd Wright. And, while the project ended up being both more complicated and more expensive than Johnson ever imagined, he seems to have accomplished his objective. By many measures, the Administration Building Wright created was the best office building in the world. It was certainly was unique.
Entering the Administration Building
Wright tended to design entrances that were cave-like. He wanted the space to feel cramped and constricted to emphasize the expansiveness of the large spaces at the heart of his buildings.
Like most of Wright’s buildings, the entrance to the SC Johnson Administration Building feels rather cramped and constricted. However, he induces that feeling in a rather unusual way.
As expected, the entry area is boxed in. It has a low ceiling and a long wall that rises directly from one side of the walkway.
Unexpectedly, the ceiling above the walkway and adjoining parking area is made of giant white circles held aloft on delicate sculpted legs. These forms, which look to me like the bottom of giant lily pads, extend beyond the walkway into an adjoining enclosed courtyard. A series of round pools creates a barrier between the walkway and the courtyard, forcing visitors toward the (nearly invisible) building entrance. Even without water in the pools, walking through here feels a bit like being underwater, as if I am looking out at the world from through the stems of giant lily pads. As such, it feels enclosed and rather cramped even while looking bright and airy.
It’s quite a trick. Unfortunately, there isn’t much time to dwell on it, as we are quickly gathered together to enter the building itself.
Knowing that photos are not allowed inside, I line up with others to take a quick picture through the glass door before putting my camera away.
Inside the Administration Building
Our guide has made it clear that we are to be quiet inside.
He needn’t have bothered.
Everyone walks through the door and just stops in stunned silence.
Inside, slender pillars soar up to a ceiling of round pads like those outside. From somewhere above them, soft light filters down and settles amid a harmonious smattering of furniture.
The Great Workroom
The Great Workroom is where most employees worked when the Administration Building opened in 1939. The half-acre room seems part cathedral, part library reading room, and part aquarium.
The Administration Building features a forest of hollow concrete “dendriform” (tree-like) columns. Here in the Great Workroom, the foot of each column is 9 inches across and rises 30 feet. At the top each forms a lily pad-like circle that is 18 feet across. The design was so improbable that local officials refused to issue a building permit until Wright proved the columns were capable of supporting 12 tons of weight. (Just to rub it in, Wright continued to load weight on the test column until it collapsed. That required 60 tons of weight.)
Above the graceful columns, the original roof was made up of a network of clear Pyrex tubes that filtered the sunlight. At the building’s edges, the tubes wrapped to form clerestory windows. These tubes filled the building with soft, bright light. However, the sealant between the tubes never held and water continually dripped into the work spaces and offices below. The situation was so bad the entire system was eventually replaced. The current Plexiglas version is designed to have the same look and opacity as the original, but without the leaks or other maintenance challenges.
In the subdued light of a cloudy day, the roof creates a hazy light that makes the lily pad ceiling appear to float three stories above our heads. It’s exactly the kind of light one would expect to find below the surface of a still pond. It makes the space feel serene and very, very far from the world beyond.
Of course, when the Administration Building first opened, the Great Workroom would have been buzzing with activity. Originally housing many more employees than it does today, it also housed the considerably louder technology of the day, including ringing phones and clattering typewriters.
I would love to wander through this building – including the other floors, but the tour only allows us to see the Great Room and one of the original bird cage elevators.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s SC Johnson Research Tower
SC Johnson was in need of a new research facility by 1943. By that time, Hib Johnson had already worked with Wright on two projects – SC Johnson’s Administration Building and his private home, Wingspread. Both projects were completed well behind schedule and wildly over budget.
One would think that perhaps Johnson would have decided he’d had enough of Frank Lloyd Wright.
That may have been the case. However, Wright could be incredibly persistent and persuasive when he had an idea he wanted built. And, once hired, he had no qualms about doing whatever he thought best, regardless of what his client wanted.
An innovative, if rather impractical, design
Johnson is said to have warned Wright that “we simply will not consider a financial and construction nightmare like the office building.”
He should have known that was just wishful thinking.
Wright designed a research tower that stands 15 stories high and extends 54 feet into the ground. The core of the building is 13 feet in diameter and supports cantilevered floors that reach out like the branches of a pine tree inside their exterior housing.
Within the exterior sheathing of Cherokee red brick and thousands of Pyrex glass tubes, the floors of the SC Johnson Research tower alternate between square floors that stretch to the outside edge of the building and smaller circular mezzanines that seem to float between each of the full floors.
Nothing like it had been built before.
The unusual layout can be seen from the exterior, which was largely made of Pyrex tubing like that used on the roof of the Administration Building.
Form over function?
The SC Johnson Research Tower is gorgeous and it drew plenty of positive attention for the company when it opened in 1950.
However, it seems it was a “financial and construction nightmare” very much like the Administration Building. And, unlike the wildly successful Administration Building, its functionality was limited.
The core of the building is so small that large equipment didn’t fit in its single elevator. Likewise, the winding staircase was so narrow SC Johnson’s scientists couldn’t move easily between floors. (The open mezzanines intended to facilitate discussion between floors were a nice idea, but didn’t really substitute for movement between floors.)
The building wasn’t particularly comfortable either. As usual in a Wright building, the heating and cooling systems weren’t the most efficient. Of course, the Pyrex tubing leaked. And there were no fire sprinklers because Wright thought they were ugly.
However, the tower’s most famous flaw was also the easiest remedied. The glass tubes intended to filter the view and the light created blindingly bright light in full sunlight. Scientists working in the tower solved that problem by asking SC Johnson for sunglasses!
Despite the building’s flaws quirks, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Research Tower remained in use from its opening in 1950 until updated fire codes required moving employees out in 1981. During those years, some of SC Johnson’s most well-known, innovative, and successful products were developed in the building’s research labs, including Raid and OFF! bug sprays and Pledge furniture polish.
Perhaps Wright’s unconventional design inspired the tremendous amount of innovation that occurred within its glass and brick walls. Former SC Johnson leader Sam Johnson described the building as a functioning failure, but a spiritual success.
Inside Frank Lloyd Wright’s Research Tower
Our tour includes a peek inside SC Johnson’s Research Tower, something that only became possible a few years ago.
The Research Tower is one of only two towers built by Wright and the design is utterly unique. However, with no practical use for it after 1982, the tower stood closed and unused for 30 years. Then, in 2013, SC Johnson restored the tower.
It was an expensive, year-long undertaking, but today visitors can tour two floors that were restored to their 1950s appearance.
However, before we can see the restored laboratories, we have to get up to them. That requires climbing the suffocatingly narrow stairway entombed in the tower’s central core.
However, once out on a mezzanine, the space is wonderful.
The circular floor floats above the square laboratory below. From either floor, the two-story expanse of glass tubing fills the space with light. And, on the side away from the sun, that light is beautiful. As I watch it caress the vintage lab equipment I really, really want to get my camera out.
Even if we can’t take pictures, we are allowed to wander freely on these two floors for a bit. Both are set up to look much as they would have in the 1950s, with some space also used for small exhibits on the building and the products created in it.
It’s a fascinating time capsule and I feel very lucky to be able to see it.
Norman Foster’s Fortaleza Hall
Frank Lloyd Wright wasn’t the only star architect to design a building for the SC Johnson headquarters.
Designed b Norman Foster and his firm Foster + Partners, Fortaleza Hall and the attached Community Building opened in 2010.
They echo Wright’s buildings in their planes and curving lines. However, the transparent glass walls of Fortaleza Hall provide clear views both into the building and back out to the rest of the SC Johnson campus. It creates a visual link between SC Johnson’s history and day-to-day activity. In this way it is the polar opposite of Wright’s glass tube windows, which were designed specifically to obscure views of the world beyond – including the rest of the company’s buildings – and focus attention inward.
The facility was awarded LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold award.
SC Johnson’s architecture tour includes a visit to Fortaleza Hall, which serves mostly as a museum and exhibit area.
(The Community Building is a facility for employees, with dining areas, a gym, and other amenities. As such, it is not included on the tour.)
A Sikorsky S-38 Carnaúba in the air again
The focal point of Fortaleza Hall is a replica 1930s era Sikorsky airplane suspended from the ceiling. It’s as if the plane flew through an opening in the glass and got trapped mid-flight.
This odd-looking plane is modeled after the one Hib Johnson used in 1935 on a journey to Brazil in search of a renewable source of the carnaúba palm wax. This wax was a key ingredient in the company’s signature products and Johnson feared it could be in short supply someday if the trees that produced it weren’t protected and managed.
That journey was a success and it holds a central role in SC Johnson company lore. So much so that Hib’s son Sam and two of his sons (all of them pilots) had this replica built in 1998. They then used it to recreate the 1935 flight.
This should make a really engaging story, but it seems very abstract on our tour. The plane itself is high overhead. It’s hard to really see it from below and it seems disconnected from everything around it. More pictures and information on to bring the story to life would help.
Watching Sam Johnson’s movie about recreating his father’s flight, Carnauba: A Son’s Memoir, would help too. It’s available for viewing at the end of the tour. (It’s also available on YouTube.) The movie uses Sam’s trip to look at his own life and his relationship with his father.
The floor below the airplane has an inlaid wood map of the Americas. It shows the route flown to Brazil. (You can’t fly non-stop to Brazil in a 1930’s prop plane.) It’s a pretty map and, with 19,200 pieces of wood, it was quite an undertaking. However, it doesn’t show the Arctic correctly. That made the whole thing a little suspect.
On the other hand, the palm mural printed on concrete is really cool. It was created from a photo taken during the 1935 expedition and it seems to shift and change as you look at it.
More about Frank Lloyd Wright
Most of the exhibit space in Fortaleza Hall is hidden away on the lowest level. While tucked out of sight, it’s a nice area, with lots of warm wood and mostly good lighting. It also features some interesting exhibits. The tour allows some time, but not enough, to explore them.
The featured exhibit is At Home with Frank Lloyd Wright. It includes a selection of furnishings, artifacts, and supporting materials that look at the evolution of domestic architecture – particularly interior spaces – throughout Wright’s career. The exhibit changes periodically, although the overall theme remains the same.
When we visited the exhibit area also had a number of the letters Wright and Hib Johnson exchanged over the years. Both men had strong personalities and a great deal of self-confidence, all of which comes through in their written words. Having worked together over so many years, the two clearly liked and respected each other, but they weren’t afraid to battle over design decisions and construction costs either.
Golden Rondelle Building
All SC Johnson tours begin and end in the Golden Rondelle Building.
The brick building that supports the Golden Rondelle Theater was designed by Taliesin Associated Architects in 1965. However, the theater itself (the Golden Rondelle) was constructed as a free-standing theater for SC Johnson’s exhibit at the 1964-1965 World’s Fair in New York City.
At the end of each tour, visitors are invited into the theater (which was remodeled inside when it moved to Racine) to watch Sam Johnson’s Carnauba: A Son’s Memoir and To Be Alive!, the film produced for the 1964-1965 World’s Fair.
The Golden Rondelle at the World’s FairBuilt as a free-standing theater for the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, the original Golden Rondelle, was supported by a futuristic steel frame.
The theater was built specifically to screen the short film To Be Alive! at the fair. Both the design of the theater pavilion and the film shown in it were unorthodox.
Produced by SC Johnson and designed to be shown simultaneously on three separate screens, To Be Alive! was groundbreaking in a couple of ways.
Besides the experimental multi-screen format, it was unique for a fair exhibit in that it didn’t promote SC Johnson’s products. Instead, it stayed true to the fair’s theme “Peace Through Understanding” by focusing on the simple joy of life as experienced by children growing up across the globe.
Hib Johnson’s decision to create the pavilion and film wasn’t particularly popular with his leadership team. However, the SC Johnson pavilion was one of the most popular exhibits at the fair.
The building was lauded for its original design.
But, more than that, the movie was a huge hit with fair goers. And, after modifications that allowed it to be shown on a single screen, it won the 1966 Academy Award for short documentaries.
Planning your SC Johnson tour
The SC Johnson headquarters is located in Racine, Wisconsin. Racine sits along the shores of Lake Michigan just off Interstate 94. It’s about an hour’s drive south of Milwaukee and a couple hours north of Chicago. It’s also possible to reach Racine by train, as Amtrak stops in nearby Sturtevant.
In addition to the buildings at the headquarters in Racine, SC Johnson offers tours to nearby Wingspread. Built by Frank Llloyd Wright as Hib Johnson’s home, the beautifully preserved house is now part of a conference center operated by the Johnson Foundation. It’s located just north of Racine.
Racine is also an interesting town in and of itself. It has a historic downtown, a wonderful contemporary craft museum, and pleasant waterfront. The historic Wind Point Lighthouse is located just north of the city. And, of course, there are plenty of options for water sports and hiking.
While it is possible to tour the SC Johnson campus and nearby Wingspread as a day trip from Milwaukee or Kenosha, it’s worth staying in Racine for a day or two.
Booking a tour
A little planning is necessary to tour SC Johnson’s buildings
Architectural tours are only offered between March and December.
The only way to check for days, times, and tour availability is to go to the booking page and see what is being offered when. (Right now that page has a header that lists the SC Johnson architecture tour as a bus tour. That seems to be an error. This is the tour we took and there is no bus involved.)
While tours seem to be offered most Thursdays through Sundays during the season, choose a weekend tour if you can. On weekends the tour includes Hib Johnson’s recently refurbished 1940s penthouse office. (I would have loved to have seen this, but we couldn’t fit a weekend visit into our schedule.)
It is also possible to book a screening of the films Carnaúba: A Son’s Memoir and To Be Alive! separately from the architectural tour.
All tours are free, but must be booked in advance.
What to expect on your tour
Tours begin and end at the Golden Rondelle Building.
You will get a brief overview of the company and its architecture before you go out on your tour. When you return, you can stay and watch the movies To Be Alive! and Carnaúba: A Son’s Memoir in the Golden Rondelle Theater. (Something we didn’t do because we were short on time.)
All tours are guided
You will be assigned a guide at the start of the tour and must stay with that guide. Guides tolerate a bit of lagging to take pictures, but will keep the group moving along. Don’t expect to stray very far or move too slowly – the guides have to keep the group together and on schedule.
Guides are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about company’s history and the architecture you are viewing. Their stories bring the company and a few of its leaders to life.
Photography is prohibited in all three buildings on the tour.
That includes the central display area in Fortaleza Hall. You can take pictures through the glass from outside, but the minute you step inside you have to put your camera away. (The guides will stop you if, like me, you forget and start to get your camera out.)
Photography is allowed anywhere outside the buildings.
You are the guest of a very private company
SC Johnson is a closely held family business. They are a very private bunch and they do not have to allow guests onto their property at all. However, they have spent a lot of money to preserve their architectural icons and they run an entire tour program to share that legacy. That’s a huge gift to all of us.
Visiting SC Johnson’s headquarters is a privilege, please be courteous and follow the rules!
Frank Lloyd Wright buildings at SC Johnson
The SC Johnson website has information on the buildings included on the tour. The level of detail isn’t consistent, but there is a lot there. Note that some of the best information is hidden away in the company’s press releases and other publications that are most easily found through a Google search.
Author and photographer Mark Hertzberg’s blog Wright is Racine has all sorts of interesting information and great photographs related to the SC Johnson headquarters. Besides being an incredible photographer, Hertzberg is an expert on Wright’s work in Racine and is on the board of the Frank Lloyd Wright Wisconsin Tourism Heritage Program (Wright in Wisconsin). His books on the Research Tower and on Wright in Racine were published by Pomegranate Press.
Arch Daily has a story on the Research Tower that includes beautiful historic photos and vintage video of the Administration Building and Research Tower.
Wikimedia has a wonderful collection of historic images of the Administration Building from the Library of Congress. There doesn’t seem to be an easy way to find these on the Library of Congress website, so linking from Wikimedia is simplest. Be aware, however, that several of the links are not correct.
There are a few videos that feature the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings on SC Johnson’s campus in Racine. I’ve gathered a few of them together here, along with some interviews and other things on Wright and his work.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Trail
SC Johnson worked with Wisconsin tourism folks to develop the 200 mile Wisconsin Frank Lloyd Wright Trail. A signed route and App (for Apple or Android). It’s free and provides information on buildings by Wright that are open to the public at various times.
More about SC Johnson
While on the SC Johnson website to book your tour, check out the profiles of the company’s five generations of leaders. The tour includes some information on Hib and Sam Johnson (generations three and four), but all of the company’s leaders have been pretty impressive and have left their mark on SC Johnson. There are some pretty good stories here that aren’t part of the tour.
If you are interested in knowing more about the company itself, there is a lot of information on their long-standing commitment to their employees and the planet. (For example, the company quit producing products with chlorofluorocarbons BEFORE they were banned AND before they had a substitute because it was the right thing to do even if it cost them money to do so. Of course, that also made them get busy developing an alternative, which served them well financially when CFCs were banned three years later and other companies weren’t ready.)
The 1964 World’s Fair
I’ve found very little information on the design and construction of the Golden Rondelle. However, the fascinating website nywf64 has a ton of information on the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair. That includes several very futuristic-looking images of the Johnson Wax pavilion (with the Golden Rondelle) and a few fair souvenirs from the company.