The House That Johnson Wax Built

A Family Company

Last Friday I took a day trip with friends up to Racine, Wisconsin to tour the Johnson Wax Headquarters, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

The day began with a stop at O & H Danish Bakery, known for their Kringle, a ring pastry filled with nuts or fruit. Kringle dough is folded-over for three days to give it a distinctive light and tender flakiness. Everything we sampled, from kringle to donuts, was delicious.

Golden Rondelle TheaterThen it was off to the Golden Rondelle Theater and the start of our Johnson Wax tour. Tours are only given on Fridays; it’s free but reservations are required. We were told to be there at noon for a couple of films, followed by the tour at 1:30.

The Golden Rondelle is a re-jiggered piece of futuristic ’60s architecture left over from the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, where it served as the Johnson Wax Pavilion and hosted a short film called “To Be Alive!,” which I learned later won an Academy Award for best short film. After the fair, the Golden Rondelle was dismantled and moved to Racine. It was placed closer to the ground, nestled in a brick structure designed by Taliesin architects to blend in with the style of Wright’s other buildings at the Johnson Wax headquarters.

The film we saw was a strange bit of self-indulgence about Samuel Johnson, the fourth generation of the family to head the company. Carnuba: A Son’s Memoir tells the story in Johnson’s words about his difficult relationship with his father and his attempt to regain a connection with his father by recreating the 15,000 mile journey his father took to the Amazon (the source of the wax) in 1935. To make the trip, Johnson had to commission a recreation of the plane flown by his father (a project that took three-and-a-half years and I’m sure millions of dollars.) Carnuba’s stunning cinematography of the plane flying low over prairies and jungle saved this hour-long, over-produced home movie from classifying as a complete waste of time. A total rich man’s indulgence. So, while we were told the film would be good background for the tour, it didn’t relate in any way to the reason most of us in the audience were there–to see buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Dumb.

Johnson Wax R&D TowerFinally, the tour. About an hour long, it was both very interesting and slightly disappointing. To see the famous “great workroom” (1936-39) with it’s dendriform columns (some call them trees, others lily pads) is truly an awe inspiring experience. Unfortunately, because you’re touring a working office, there’s only so far and so much you can see, and once you pass through the complex gates, photography is forbidden.

Also unfortunate is the fact that the Tower is empty and unaccessible. The floors of the building, alternating rectangles and circles, are cantilevered off the central core, which is buried 42 feet in the ground like the tap root of a tree. Three decades after the Research and Development Tower was built (1944-51, also designed by Wright), the labs, staff and all were moved to a nearby larger location. Updated fire codes prevent further occupancy or tours of the tower. (Heating, air conditioning, plumbing and elevators are located in the central core, making it the only way in and out of the building.) Rather than retrofit Wright’s design, the tower stands empty, like a giant sculpture. I would have signed any waver necessary to get a glimpse inside that building.

About an hour’s drive from Chicago, I’d absolutely recommend visiting Racine to see these two landmark Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. Feel free to skip the film.

A few more photos from my trip to Racine can be seen here.


2 thoughts on “The House That Johnson Wax Built

  1. You can take a virtual tour of the Research Tower through my blog at http://www.wrightinracine.com I had the opportunity to photograph it recently for the forthcoming Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy conference (www.savewright.org).
    Come back and visit Wingspread, too.
    Mark Hertzberg
    Author and Photographer of “Wright in Racine” (Pomegranate, 2004)
    and “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Hardy House” (Pomegranate, 2006)

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