By the spring of 1936, the Johnson and Sons Wax Company had outgrown its offices and began looking for an architect to design a new facility for the company. J. Mandor Matson was subsequently hired and designed a rather uninspired Beaux Arts building. Ground was to be broken on Matson’s building in July of 1936; however Herbert Johnson was not entirely convinced by the design so Johnson’s advertising manager William Connolley and his general manager, Jack Ramsey, drove to meet with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The meeting with Wright went well and Ramsey wrote to Johnson urging him to meet Wright as well which Johnson did later that month on July 20. After their meeting, Johnson was convinced enough to hand the commission for his new office building over to Wright. At the end of August, Wright presented his drawings to Johnson. He presented only eighteen to twenty drawings in order to express the overall simplicity of the project in the construction set. In October, after reviewing Wright’s designs for the new office building, Ramsey wrote to Wright asking that not all the interior walls be brick as in the Larkin building because Johnson was concerned that the effect would be jarring. Wright, however, did not concede. Throughout the design and construction process, as was the case with the interior brick façade, Wright’s concepts for the Johnson Wax Company Administration Building went unchanged even when it required that he request a change to Wisconsin’s building code in order to allow his design for the building’s infamous mushroom columns.
The administration building is set back from the streets by 14 feet on each side and comprises a large open workroom surrounding with an entrance on the long side of the building to which a balcony overlooks. A rooftop penthouse of offices, which at its center is open to the workroom below, and two curved office wings are placed symmetrically over this two-story entrance lobby with office support facilities placed over the carport. The administration building is faced entirely in brick on both the exterior and interior walls. It is windowless and is lit by skylights and strips of translucent Pyrex tubing. The research tower is fifteen stories tall and comprises a series of square floors and circular mezzanine levels. The façade of the building is created through a wrapping of alternating horizontal bands of brick and Pyrex tubing.
The administration building is constructed of wire mesh reinforced concrete slab and tapered mushroom columns. The research center is also of reinforced concrete with its floors cantilevered from a central hollow core.
The Johnson Wax complex is located in the heart of Racine and is surrounded on all sides by city streets. It is situated between industrial sites and residential neighborhoods and is seven blocks west of Lake Michigan. Red brick is the prevalent material choice in this area.
Wright promised Johnson a building that would make him feel as if he were bathing in sunlight among pine trees, which he accomplished with the use of his “mushroom” columns. These columns taper up to support circular slabs which form the ceiling with the spaces between the circular slabs filled with translucent glass tubing thus effectively creating a man-made forest open to the sky. Additionally, by supporting the roof of the Great Workroom on the columns, clerestories of five feet in width could be included, thereby adding even more light to the space. The design of the columns themselves did not meet local building code requirements and so the Industrial Commission, being unable to decide whether or not to allow their construction, decided to have a test column built and loaded in order to observe its bearing capacity. The famous testing of the column was held in June of 1937 and after it had held the required twelve tons needed to satisfy the commissioners, Wright had the column loaded until there was no more room left to pile loads; it held sixty tons. The design of the research tower involved a coupling of a square floor and round mezzanine level. Although the vertical layout did not favor casual communication that was considered necessary for the spread of ideas, the two-story spaces provided scientists with psychological amenities as the researchers would not be confined to small two-person laboratories but rather were open to the amount of space equivalent to five smaller laboratories, as well as an abundance of light. To accomplish this, Wright conceived of the tower as a cantilevered system in which the reinforced slabs which taper from a maximum thickness at the point where the slab meets the hollow core.
The Johnson Wax Company proved to be an ideal client with ideals that paralleled Wright’s ideas that a company should not introduce products simply to gain the lead among its competitors but rather should only sell those products that were both innovative and would benefit the client. In addition to possessing these types of business principles, the company had a sense of respect for their employees with a “no layoff” policy as well as paid vacations, forty-hour workweeks (unusual at the time), and a profit-sharing system. This attitude toward the betterment of workers was clearly integrated into Wright’s design for the Great Workroom, a large space in which all clerical workers from each department were to share a common space in order to encourage cooperation. Wright considered work to have a spiritual value and designed the building to inspire work much like a cathedral might inspire worship and felt that making an environment that employees could be proud of would also inspire productivity. In the space’s multistory volume with its abundance of natural light, Wright provided this pleasant and inspiring working environment that had financial implications as the company’s office operations improved by 15 to 25 percent. Wright recalled later that the employees enjoyed the space so much that they often chose to spend their lunches in the building rather than leave to have lunch at home.
The choice of common brick for both the exterior and interior walls of the building was made by Wright in order to make the walls as monolithic as possible responding to his ideas toward an organic design where form didn’t follow function and function didn’t follow form but rather the function and form were made to be inseparable from each other. The specific choice of dark red brick for the buildings was in response to the surrounding neighborhood’s use of a similar brick color. In removing all punctured windows from the building’s facades, Wright claimed that he was using bricks as bricks rather than glass as bricks. The interaction between the tower and the columned hall has been seen to have its precedence in ecclesiastical architecture rather than in office buildings. Japanese religious complexes bear the strongest comparisons with their emphasis on horizontality and their form of a colonnaded single story structure surrounding a quiet courtyard and the prayer pagoda.
Both the administration building and research tower were enthusiastically received by the public and the Johnson Wax Company employees alike. It was praised for both its overall quality of construction and its innovations in architectural and engineering design. In 1979, S.C. Johnson’s president, Samuel Johnson, spoke of how the company transformed the day that Wright’s building opened because it was through the building that the company gained international attention and inherited a symbol of quality that translated to their products and the working environment as well.
The design and construction of the JWC allowed Wright the opportunity to explore his ideas for the ideal working environment as well as his sense that form and function should be combined into one cohesive building that imbues a desire for productivity in its occupants. The buildings also stand as a great example of Wright’s continual structural innovations throughout his career and earmark his leap to a more streamlined version of modern architecture.
Carter, Brian, Johnson Wax Administration Building and Research Tower, London; Phaidon Press; 1998.
Lipman, Jonathon, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Johnson Wax buildings, New York; Rizzoli, 1986.
National Park Service, National Historic Landmarks Program, http://tps.cr.nps.gov/nhl/detail.cfm?ResourceId=1521&ResourceType=Building