RACINE, Wis. — One of Frank Lloyd Wright's most beguiling and troubled buildings opens to public tours for the first time next week, and when it does, it will raise an eternal, vexing question: Which matters more, beauty or utility?
It's easy to paint Wright's 15-story S.C. Johnson Research Tower, an exquisite mini-skyscraper wrapped in red brick and glass tubes, as a functional flop. The tubes leaked badly after the tower opened in 1950, and its inside was so unrelentingly bright that employees demanded that the company provide sunglasses. The tower proved difficult to expand and just as hard to escape. It has one 29-inch-wide, twisting staircase, a shortcoming that could have proved lethal had fire struck.
Yet the Research Tower was also an inspiring incubator. Within a decade of its opening, S.C. Johnson scientists invented four of the company's iconic and still-profitable products — Raid, Glade, OFF! and Pledge. And now that the tower has been spiffed up — including the cleaning of its glass tubes (naturally with Windex, another S.C. Johnson product) — it serves more effectively than ever as a campanile of commerce for the Johnson complex, about 60 miles north of Chicago.
The tower will be one stop on a two-hour architecture tour of the compound that includes two other stellar buildings, Wright's S.C. Johnson Administration Building of 1939 and British architect Norman Foster's Fortaleza Hall, a glassy 2010 showcase for a replica of the Sikorsky S-38 biplane that the company's president flew to Brazil in 1935 in search of a lasting source of wax for the company's floor-care products.
Whatever side you take in the form-versus-function debate, stepping inside the tower offers a fascinating trip through space and time.
Although the free tour will cover just two of the tower's floors in roughly half an hour, that's enough to grasp the essence of Wright's innovative "taproot" structure. Its alternating square and round floors reach out like tree branches from a reinforced concrete core sunk deep into the ground. The tower's laboratory spaces are a vision of the future, circa 1950, at once spacious, luminous, hot and frustrating for people who like to look out the window.
Beakers, scales, centrifuges, archival photographs and reproductions of letters about the building are scattered on the black countertops. There are replica off-white, lab coats. The laboratories, says Johnson archivist Terri Boesel, are meant to look frozen in time, as if the staff had left one night and never returned.
The tours, which start May 2 and run through Sept. 28, provide a welcome change of subject for S.C. Johnson, which revealed in February that it would lay off 300 to 400 Racine-area employees. The tours, the company stresses, were planned long before the layoffs were announced. "We feel an incredible responsibility to keep these buildings and their legacy alive," spokeswoman Jam Stewart wrote in an email.
For architecture buffs, the tours present an unprecedented opportunity: To peek inside a landmark that was previously off-limits.
"It always felt a little incomplete. You could see it, but you couldn't go in," said Sean Malone, president of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which oversees Wright's Taliesin compounds in Wisconsin and Arizona and worked with S.C. Johnson on the tower's restoration and exhibits.
When it opened in 1950, the Research Tower provided a vertical counterpart to Wright's elegantly horizontal Administration Building. Both were visions of streamlined modernity, clad in Wright's trademark "Cherokee" red brick and translucent Pyrex tubes that let in light but didn't allow for views. Wright dismissed the need for ordinary windows, deeming the buildings' industrial surroundings undesirable.
Within the Administration Building, lilypad-shaped columns frame a serene workplace in which light unexpectedly emanates from the ceiling. The building was — and is — a triumph, a cathedral of benevolent capitalism. Yet delays and cost overruns frustrated Herbert F. Johnson, Jr., the company's president, as the Racine-based journalist Mark Hertzberg recounts in his 2010 book about the tower.
In 1943, when Johnson wrote to Wright about plans for the research edifice, he simultaneously warned him: "To be frank, Frank, we simply will not consider a financial and construction nightmare" like the Administration Building.
When Wright's tower opened, its floors were arranged so concepts would flow seamlessly from the top down. Research labs, where ideas were hatched, were above development labs, where ideas were turned into products. Products were tested on the lower, quality-control floors before they were judged fit to be made in adjoining factories. Openings between the square floors and circular mezzanines were supposed to enable verbal communication between the scientists.
The setup sounded perfectly rational, as if it had been arranged by an efficiency expert. But as was invariably the case with Wright's buildings, artistic vision trumped practical reality.
Besides the omnipresent glare and leaking tubes, which eventually were sealed with caulk, the Research Tower had no sprinklers, as Brendan Gill wrote in his 1987 Wright biography, "Many Masks." The architect considered them ugly.
As a result, according to Gill's account, S.C. Johnson had to pay higher-than-normal premiums for fire insurance. When the number of people working in the building rose, its single fire stair was pronounced inadequate. In 1982, the company moved its research and development operation to a nearby structure, essentially mothballing the tower.
Yet S.C. Johnson continued to light the tower at night and, last year, it undertook an extensive renovation, replacing damaged bricks, cleaning and replacing glass tubes, removing fire walls that were installed in the 1970s, and refurbishing the quality-control labs, which occupy the tower's third floor and third-floor mezzanine. Steel cabinets, which had been painted a bland beige, have been restored to their original red hues. "Why you would go to puke beige from Cherokee red, I really don't know," Greg Anderegg, S.C. Johnson's director of global community affairs, said during a tour.
The company won't say how much the project cost, though it acknowledges it has spent the princely sum of $30 million on restorations of the tower and the Administration Building over the past five years. Both look ageless even as they richly express the optimism of their time.
Inside the tower, the glass tubes transform daylight into a series of curving horizontal bands that range in color from white to blue. The ghost-like silhouettes of nearby brick buildings can be glimpsed through the translucent glass, adding faint red tones its ethereal mix of light. The spatial drama crescendos at the tower's corners, where openings left by the circular mezzanines create ceiling heights of more than 17 feet.
To its credit, S.C. Johnson's exhibits have touches of self-deprecating humor, like an item which notes the tower's quirky piping. "Shampoo dumped in a drain in the tower would sometimes reappear in basement toilets," it says. In the same spirit, a cartoon displayed inside one of the dumbwaiters that once shuttled materials from floor to floor shows a man about to spray a bug with a Raid-like aerosol can. The bug, however, is wearing a gas mask.
To see the tower is to experience first-hand Wright's vision for a decentralized metropolis, one in which skyscrapers would stand free in space rather than being jammed together in a congested city center. Coincidentally, that vision is the subject of an ongoing exhibit at New York's Museum of Modern Art, "Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal," which runs through June 1.
MoMA's standard admission fee is $25. My advice: Take your $25, buy a few gallons of gas or a train ticket, and high-tail it to Racine. Nothing beats the three-dimensional reality of architecture, especially when it's concocted by the master of space and structure, Frank Lloyd Wright.
Due to an enthusiastic public response after the Research Tower tours were announced, S.C. Johnson has added Sunday tours to its original plan for Friday and Saturday tours. Reservations can be made online at scjohnson.com/visit, or call 262-260-2154. Because of the building's functional limitations, the tours are not accessible to people in wheelchairs. They are limited to groups of 25, 23 guests and two guides.
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