RACINE - Frank Lloyd Wright's legacy includes famously leaky roofs. The landmark SC Johnson Administration Building, 1525 Howe St., which he designed in 1936, is no exception.
The Great Workroom in the center of the building has been likened to a forest with a canopy of trees, formed by the dramatic slender dendriform or mushroom-shaped columns. Today there is a different forest in the room, a maze of iron scaffolding which surrounds the columns.
While aficionados of Wright's work sometimes minimize such shortcomings as leaky roofs in his designs, SC Johnson is to fix the problem. A major project is to repair the leaks, as well as improve the quality of light in the Great Workroom and improve the building's energy efficiency.
The building's streamlined design is accented by Wright's 47 miles of Pyrex-glass tube clerestory windows, which are in bands that wrap around the building at ceiling height. Wright used the same glass tubes to fill the Great Workroom with natural light. There were two layers of glass tubes, one in roof skylights that encircle the top of each of the dendriform columns, and one below, at the ceiling. Artificial lighting was added between the layers, after Wright was asked how well workers would see on cloudy days. He suggested that they use desk lamps, but was overruled.
There was no effective way to seal the joints of the glass tubes at the time. Silicone caulk was not invented by Dow until the 1950s (in an effort to curb leaking of the glass tube windows in Wright's Research Tower, which opened in 1950).
The glass tubes on the roof of the Administration Building leaked so badly that they were replaced by aluminum-frame skylights, which were also sloped to better shed rain and snow, The glass tubes at the ceiling level were later replaced by panels of acrylic tubes (mimicking Wright's glass tubes) to give maintenance workers better access to the lights above. Metal halide lights, which have a green cast, were installed between the skylights and ceiling panels.
The goal of the current project was simple: "Let's start completely over, and do it right," says Tracy Lutterman, construction project manager in Johnson's Corporate Facilities division.
Planning began in 2005. The first restoration was in the lobby, a small area that could serve as a test area for the larger challenge above the Great Workroom. The work was done in 2006-2008. Planning included building mock-ups of the ceiling. New insulated skylights were installed; compact fluorescent bulbs, on timers, were put in the original light fixtures; and new acrylic tubes were installed in panels over the reception area. The area was immediately brighter and visually more pleasing, as the color of the light went from pale green to white. The Great Workroom then looked like "a cave" in contrast to the lobby, says Lutterman. People in the Great Workroom asked, "When are you going to do ours?"
While workmen on the roof replace brick parapets, install copper flashing - the first flashing ever on the roof - and install the new skylights, workmen atop the Great Workroom are painting and preparing the area for installation of the new lights and panels of acrylic tubing.
The scaffolding in the Great Workroom leads to a small room that has been built for the repair workers, just below the ceiling. It places the workers at the top of the dendriform columns. The floor consists of two layers of plywood, with insulation in between, to deaden construction noise for the office workers below. Some workers move around on little carts they sit on, because it is only four feet between the tops of the columns and the floor. The room is 6 feet high below the skylights, between the columns. It is anticipated the work will be done this fall.
Scaffolding on the outside of the building will remain in place into next year, when the clerestory windows on the west side are taken out to be cleaned and resealed. The east windows have already been worked on.
The Frank Lloyd Wright Library and Research Center in the new Fortaleza Hall were opened in January. The roof project is now added to the collection of projects.
The Administration Building is more than the company's headquarters office building. It not only helped relaunch Wright's largely moribund career in 1936, but it also became a symbol of the company's dedication to innovation, along with the Wright-designed Research Tower which opened in 1950.
H. F. Johnson, Jr., the company president who hired Wright during the Great Depression, fretted about the construction delays and cost-overruns. Wright assured him that the extra dollars would be more than offset by the attention the building would bring to the company. The building opened concurrently with the opening of the 1939 New York World's Fair. An article in Life magazine praised the fair, but added that if people wanted to see something really special, they should visit the administration building in Racine. Today, as an internationally-known architectural landmark, it draws some 4,500 visitors every year.
Mark Hertzberg, the Journal Times director of photography, is the author and photographer of three books about Frank Lloyd Wright's work in Racine. The third book, "Frank Lloyd Wright's SC Johnson Research Tower," will be released in mid-September.