Johnson Wax Building

I’ve admired Edgar Tafel since I read his book about his years at the Taliesin Fellowship, Apprentice to Genius.  He worked with Wright at possibly the most exciting time of his career.  Tafel was involved in the design and building of Fallingwater and the Johnson Wax building… two of my favorite Wright buildings.  describes the Johnson Wax building like this:

 “Beethoven’s 9th symphony is a culmination of all his 9 symphonies.  And it’s the strongest and the best coordinated… and of course he brings in the chorus at the same time to make it a final thing.  I’ve often thought that the Johnson Was building was Wright’s 9th symphony. “

Built in the mid 1930s, the SC Johnson Wax administrative building is one of the most beautiful Wright buildings I've had the privilege of touring.  When the research tower was added years later, the building was made even more impressive.  

Unfortunately, due to the events of September 11th, 2001, photography is no longer permitted inside the Johnson Wax building.  I'll have to go through my archives and find some old photos from our last trip and scan them for this page.  Until then, Please enjoy the photos I was able to take. 

The Golden Rondell theater was originally designed and built for the New York World Fair. It originally had a huge canopy structure over the top of it.  It was one of the biggest attractions of the World Fair.  

At the end of the fair, the main saucer section was returned to Wisconsin, where Mr. Wright built the current structure to give the structure a home.  As you can see, it makes for a very prominent landmark and an easy way to identify the location of the Johnson Wax building to the uninitiated.   

One of the things we love most about visiting the Johnson Wax building is the company's emphasis on family.  Not only is it a family owned and run business for more than 100 years,  but the ideals of family are supported by the company and its policies.  The administrative building fits into that perfectly.  

As you enter the courtyard area, two large statues welcome you... one male and the other female (with kids in tow).  This is an artistic representation of family, as well as being the only Wright statues that my friend Lisa likes. :) 

The entryway to the building consists of a beautiful set of brass lined windows and doors, including 3 large revolving doors.  

The building has one of Wright's signature tiles next to the main entrance. 

Someone walking into the building is compressed in a somewhat dark and low-ceilinged parking area before they enter into the building and are released into a large open entryway with plants hanging over the balconies.  The effect is amazing.  

The ceiling and roof are supported by these large "lily pad" columns that start at a slender 9" at the bottom, and reach 18 feet in diameter at the top.  There are 77 of them that hold the building up.  The famous story about them was that the original building committee wouldn't grant Wright a permit to build the structure because they didn't think the columns could support the weight.  They determined that each column must support 12 tons in order to safely support the building.  Wright was disgusted by their lack of confidence and foresight and decided that a public demonstration was called for.  He constructed one of the columns and then invited the entire building committee along with the press to witness the demonstration of strength.  He even hired an orchestra to play while the demonstration went on.  His plan was to pile at least 12 tons of weight on the column and continue adding weight until the column collapsed.  His little demonstration payed off.  The column was able to support more than 60 tons of sand before it finally collapsed.... more than 5 times the weight that it was required to.  Needless to say he got the building permit. 

The visible evidence of this support is in the way the walls are constructed.  There is a large gap between the top of the brick walls and the lower edge of the roof/ceiling.  This gap is filled with clear pyrex tubes that allow natural light in.  Much of the roof, in fact, is made of these clear tubes that are sealed together.  Though the lighting affect was beautiful, the ceiling tended to leak and the building got a bit too bright in the summer... necessitating use of better sealants and some shades to protect from the sunlight.  The visual effect is though you're standing in a forest.  It is beautiful. 

Wright designed all the furniture for the building too.  The desks were extremely functional to the point where they're still used today.  They incorporate build-in file cabinets and trash cans that attach to the legs so they can easily be vacuumed under.  He originally designed a 3 legged chair that helped promote good posture.  When employees complained that the chairs tipped easily, Wright replied that people would learn not to reach too far after falling a time or two.  Herb Johnson wasn't too thrilled with this answer.  During a meeting with Wright, he asked Mr. Wright to hand him a book that was just out of his reach.  Wright leaned and tumbled out of the chair.  In a very dignified manner he picked himself up, dusted off and then said that he'd have to do something about the design of the chair.  He came up with a 4 legged chair that is still in use by some employees and in the visitor's center. 

Many years later, the research tower was added to the design.  Unfortunately it does not meet current fire codes and cannot even be worked in, much less toured.  It is one of the tallest buildings in existence that uses Wright's cantilever principle in its design. 

You can see a car and the garage under the tower.   COOL!

By looking at the tower, you can see that the central core of the building is what provides the support.  As you look around the tower, it is easy to see that the glass around each floor prevents the walls from providing any structural support to the outside of the building.  In addition to that, the central core is the only part of the lower building that touches the ground.  It is actually kind of disconcerting to walk under the the tower as you enter because it looks like it should not be standing due to its lack of support. 

As a side note, this is another tour that was assisted by my tattoo.  Even though I called weeks ahead, we could not get a reservation for the 1 day that we were visiting.  We showed up anyways on the hopes that someone would cancel.  The woman was just about to tell us that there was no way she could fit us in when she noticed my tattoo.  She told me after the tour that had been the reason why she let us all go through. 

Two lessons to be learned... 1)  Plan your trip to Johnson Wax well in advance.  They only give tours on Fridays!!!  and 2)  If you've got ink, SHOW IT!!!!

Praise be to he on high for the pre-911 photos that I found!

Compression and Release

The entry into the Johnson Wax building is done through this low garage.  I'm claustrophobic and this kind of bothered me... especially on the parts where you're walking under the research tower.

Beautiful entrance hall.

The "lily pad" columns really make for a breath taking entry.  You can see all the way to the skylight ceiling.

The Architect Philip Johnson had some wonderful quotes about Wright in Ken Burns’ documentary.  Some of the best are when he was talking about the Johnson Wax building… a building, which he lists as “the finest room in the United States today.”

 “I don’t think he ever mentioned light to me in all the conversations we had.  He talked about how proud he was of the structure of the concrete “lily pads” (the structural members that hold up the ceiling in the Johnson Wax building).  Oh that’s nothing…   Anyone can build a concrete thing… you just call somebody on the telephone, ‘come quick and make me a lily pad!’  But the genius was in how he knew it would make the light, and how he knew the lily pad was the perfect shape.”

Looking from the upper floor onto the work level.

Walking from the entry to the main work space

Spiral Staircase leading to the basement.

The Tile

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