SC Johnson architecture tour, Racine, Wisconsin

(Last Updated On: January 12, 2023)

The products SC Johnson (formerly Johnson Wax, but NOT Johnson & Johnson) manufactures are probably familiar to most, as they include household staples like Windex cleaner, OFF! insect repellent, and 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.

Frank Lloyd 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 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 tours explore the company’s history while providing limited access to three architecturally significant buildings: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Administration Building and Research Tower and  Norman Foster + Partners’ Fortaleza Hall. Tours begin in the Golden Rondelle Theater where you can screen one or two of SC Johnson’s films.

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.

I took this tour in 2016. Today’s tour may vary slightly.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s legacy at SC Johnson

Under the leadership of H. F. “Hib” Johnson, Frank Lloyd Wright was hired to build two signature buildings for the SC Johnson headquarters. The first of these was the Administration building, completed in 1939. The second, Wright’s Research Tower followed a decade later.

From a distance, these 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).

headquarters SC Johnson architecture tour Racine Wisconsin - www.ExplorationVacation.net

SC Johnson Global Headquarters – Located in Racine, Wisconsin, two buildings at SC Johnson’s global headquarters were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Built in 1939, the Administration Building is celebrated as one of the top 25 buildings of the 20th century and is one of the last operational corporate headquarters that Wright designed. The 15-story Research Tower is the birthplace of some of the company’s most trusted brands like Raid®, Glade®, Pledge® and OFF!®. Photo courtesy of SC Johnson.

The tower draws you toward it and, on our architecture 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 H. F. 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.

So, 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 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 though it is also bright and airy.

Frank Lloyd Wright Administration Building SC Johnson architecture tour Racine Wisconsin - www.ExplorationVacation.net

The entrance to Wright’s Administration Building at SC Johnson.

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.

Frank Lloyd Wright Administration Building SC Johnson architecture tour Racine Wisconsin - www.ExplorationVacation.net

Even from outside you can see the interior is expansive. (You just can’t see the lilypads!)

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 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.

Frank Lloyd Wright Administration Building SC Johnson architecture tour Racine Wisconsin - www.ExplorationVacation.net

The Great Workroom is a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed office area located within the Administration Building at SC Johnson’s global headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. Perhaps the most recognized feature of the Great Workroom is its columns. Wright called the columns “dendriform,” meaning tree-shaped. Because of their unique design, they are also called mushrooms, golf tees or lily pads. Photo courtesy of SC Johnson.

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.)

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.  (Of course, a leaky roof is sort of a hallmark of Wright’s designs.) 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.

Frank Lloyd Wright Administration Building SC Johnson architecture tour Racine Wisconsin - www.ExplorationVacation.net

Northwest corner office area of the SC Johnson Administration Building, as seen from second floor balcony. Photo by Jack Boucher (1969) via the Library of Congress.

I would love to wander through this building – including the other floors, but SC Johnson’s 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 then, Johnson had already worked with Wright on two projects – SC Johnson’s Administration Building and his private home, Wingspread. Like most Wright projects, both were completed well behind schedule and wildly over budget.

One would think that perhaps Johnson had enough of Frank Lloyd Wright.

And 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.

Innovative, if rather impractical

Hib 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 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.

Frank Lloyd Wright Research Tower SC Johnson architecture tour Racine Wisconsin - www.ExplorationVacation.net

Wright’s Research Tower has alternating square and circular floors inside a clear exterior.

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.

Frank Lloyd Wright Research Tower SC Johnson architecture tour Racine Wisconsin - www.ExplorationVacation.net

Pyrex tubing filters light coming into the Research Tower.

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 particularly efficient. And, 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 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.

Frank Lloyd Wright Research Tower SC Johnson architecture tour Racine Wisconsin - www.ExplorationVacation.net

The SC Johnson Research Tower is ready Thursday May 1, 2014 for the first public tours ever, beginning Friday May 2, 2014. Two floors of the building, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, have been restored to represent what the Tower looked like when in use in the 1950s. It opened in November, 1950, and closed in 1982. (c) Mark Hertzberg for SC Johnson

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.

Frank Lloyd Wright Research Tower SC Johnson architecture tour Racine Wisconsin - www.ExplorationVacation.net

Another view of the interior of the Research tower before the first public tours on Friday May 2, 2014. Two floors of the building, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, have been restored to represent what the Tower looked like when in use in the 1950s. It opened in November, 1950, and closed in 1982. (c) Mark Hertzberg for SC Johnson

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 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 by Norman Foster and his firm Foster + Partners, Fortaleza Hall and the attached Community Building opened in 2010.

Fortaleza Hall SC Johnson architecture tour Racine Wisconsin - www.ExplorationVacation.net

Norman Foster’s Fortaleza Hall holds a museum.

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. As such, 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.

Fortaleza Hall SC Johnson architecture tour Racine Wisconsin - www.ExplorationVacation.net

Foster’s Fortaleza Hall connects with rest of the campus with the company’s past.

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.

Carnaúba plane Fortaleza Hall SC Johnson architecture tour Racine Wisconsin - www.ExplorationVacation.net

A replica Sikorsky airplane in Fortaleza Hall.

This odd-looking plane is modeled after the one H. F. Johnson used on his 1935 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 (YouTube video). 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 (YouTube video), would help too. It’s available for viewing at the end of the tour if you want to see it on a big screen. The movie uses Sam’s trip to look at his own life and his relationship with his father.

The floor

The floor below the plane 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.

Learn 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 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 began and ended in the Golden Rondelle Building.

photo of Golden Rondelle from the SC Johnson architecture tour Racine Wisconsin © Cindy Carlsson at ExplorationVacation.net

The Golden Rondelle Theater is embedded in another 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 embedded in the building) 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 the tour, we were 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 Fair

Built 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 Golden Rondelle at the 1964 World's Fair

The Johnson Wax Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. Photo by Doug Coldwell [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)] via Wikimedia Commons.

The theater was built specifically to screen the short film To Be Alive! (YouTube) 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 as a World’s Fair exhibit that 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.

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. And 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 is 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 H.F. 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

There’s no cost to tour SC Johnson’s architectural treasures, but a little advance planning is necessary.

Despite what the website says, architectural tours are currently scheduled for Saturdays and Sundays through April 2023. After that I suspect they will go back to a Wednesday – Sunday until sometime next fall. Advance reservations are required.

However, 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.

Choose a weekend tour if you can. On weekends the tour usually includes H.F. Johnson’s 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 separate screening of the films Carnaúba: A Son’s Memoir and To Be Alive! 

Resources

Looking for more information on the SC Johnson or Frank Lloyd Wright’s Administration and Research Tower? Here are few places resources to check:

link to post on SC Johnson Architecture Tour in Racine Wisconsin © Cindy Carlsson at ExplorationVacation.netlink to posts on Wisconsin in the USA

 

12 thoughts on “SC Johnson architecture tour, Racine, Wisconsin”

  1. What an in-depth report on the SC Johnson headquarters. Frank Lloyd Wright’s work never gets old. As a Chicagoan, I’ve been able to explore several of his buildings, but would love to head for Racine to tour this historic masterpiece.

    1. The more I looked into the history of Wright’s projects for SC Johnson, the more interesting things I found to write about! It’s an interesting place – I hope you get there to see it.

    1. You’re welcome, Doreen – I hope I showed you enough that you can tell whether the FLW buildings at SC Johnson are different enough to interest you or not! Not sure if you are more interested in older or newer buildings, but some of FLW’s earliest buildings were still pretty Victorian.Of course, other people did better Victorian buildings. . . Thanks for stopping by.

  2. I’m not a big Frank Lloyd Wright fan either, but I have to admit that the Great Workroom is really cool! I think because mid-century modern is still really popular, it actually still looks pretty hip and contemporary. I don’t think I’d enjoy working in a big open plan office like that, but it is neat to look at!

    1. It wouldn’t be the sort of office I’d want to work in either, Jessica, but I had a lot of (younger) colleagues where I used to work who would have loved having their office space in an open area like this. I can’t imagine how people were able to focus on their work when their were three times as many people working their and phones ringing and typewriters – it would have made me crazy. But it is beautiful!

    1. If you’ve never been down that way, it would make a great stop on a Wisconsin to Chicago road trip to tour Wright’s buildings. Taliesin is along the way. If you’ve never seen it, it’s very interesting and the “farm” that Taliesin is part of has some other very interesting buildings too. The SC Johnson buildings are the most unusual though.

  3. I really admire Frank Lloyd Wright, but I had no idea he designed SC Johnson Global Headquarters or that tours were available. Very interesting read and I so enjoyed seeing the photos!

    1. Thank you, Marilyn. Wright’s buildings for the SC Johnson headquarters are both similar to and very different from most of his other works. If you are a fan of his work, you’ll really enjoy seeing these. And SC Johnson does a nice job with their tour.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.