RACINE — SC Johnson has always opened its Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings to the public — except the mostly closed Research Tower on the company’s main campus.
But that will change next year, when SCJ partially opens the unique tower for public tours for the first time ever. The 15-story structure is on the National Register of Historic Places but has been closed since 1982 — and never open to the public.
SCJ is currently in the middle of an eight-year, $30 million restoration and conservation plan.
“Our family’s long partnership with Frank Lloyd Wright led to these architectural treasures that we’re honored to work in every day,” company President and CEO Fisk Johnson said Friday via email. “The Research Tower represents the completion of the work that Wright began here in the mid-1930s with our Administration Building.
“As we have made significant investments in these historic buildings and expanded our free public tour program, including the Tower was the natural next step.”
According to SCJ, Wright had envisioned a tower on the company campus at 1525 Howe St. as early as 1936 and included it in some of his prospective drawings. The Administration Building was commissioned that year and built first.
At SCJ, stories about difficulties with that construction project, and conflicts between Wright and HF Johnson Jr. are legendary. So when HF Johnson Jr. wrote to Wright about the intention of building a research facility, it was mostly as a courtesy. “To be frank, Frank,” he wrote in a 1943 letter to the architect, “We simply will not consider a financial and construction nightmare like the office building. It is a plain factory kind of job that should be built by an engineer or a contractor.”
Wright responded with a series of letters, and HF Johnson Jr. eventually decided to hire him again to design the tower. It was commissioned in 1944 and opened in 1950.
Research Tower features
The tower consists of alternating squarish floors and cantilevered round mezzanines. Each mezzanine is open to the floor below it to allow scientists to communicate more easily. The lab tables look like 1960s high school science tables — except they run in continuous circles along the walls.
Each floor surrounds the central, round elevator, and a dumbwaiter connects every floor.
The windows are made of the Pyrex tubes used in the Administration Building. According to the company, when the tower opened, there was nothing in place to shade it from light. It was said to be so bright in the early days that scientists were issued sunglasses until window shades could be installed.
About 50 people worked in the tower when it opened in 1950, according to SCJ. The number grew quickly as the company began to enter different product markets.
Within the next eight years, SCJ launched products that became cornerstones of its present-day business including Raid in 1955, Glade in 1956, Off in 1957 and Pledge in 1958.
The Research Tower has 15 floors consisting of offices and various research laboratories including an engineering laboratory, paint and enamels research, pilot lab, the intermediate step between the analytical research laboratory and the factory assembly line; and even an industrial war laboratory.
The Research Tower was closed in 1982 when the company opened a new research facility on campus. SCJ still has offices on the second
floor but abandoned the labs for safety concerns: Scientists worked with flammable chemicals and gases, the elevator only holds four people at once, and only one person can climb the single, winding staircase at once.
As early as the 1970s, the company had looked for ways to make the tower safer, including an external staircase. But it was decided it would compromise Wright’s original design.
This January, SCJ began the massive job of preparing to open the third floor and third mezzanine for free public tours.
There, SCJ is installing a new heating-cooling system, restoring lighting that resembles the original light fixtures and reinstalling some of the original cabinet faces. The tower will still have its original flooring and built-in cabinets and fixtures.
The interiors were originally painted Cherokee red, the signature Wright-SCJ color. But later each floor was partially repainted a different color so scientists wouldn’t mistake one floor for another. As part of the restoration, the third floor and mezzanine are being repainted Cherokee red.
SCJ expects to being public tours in late spring or early summer 2014.
Fisk Johnson added, “We are delighted to welcome visitors from around the world to come to Racine and see Wright’s master-work and give people a look into the Research Tower for the very first time.”
RESEARCH TOWER FACTS
The SC Johnson Research Tower, which the company will partially open for free public tours next year, is a unique structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The company provided numerous facts and figures about it, including these:
-- The tower is 153 feet tall. In comparison, the Racine County Courthouse is about 157 feet tall.
-- In Wright’s early letters about the Tower he envisioned a radio mast at the top so the company could broadcast “good tidings” year-round. It was one of many of Wright’s ideas that never came to fruition.
-- The windows are made with 17.5 miles of Pyrex tubes.
-- Wright originally envisioned a first floor with a glassed-in reception area but later opted for a more dramatic design that exposes the tower’s core.
-- Each floor and mezzanine has a bathroom. The doors are made of curved metal, attached to a track that can slide to open or closed position.
-- Each floor has a shower to use in case of accidents.
-- The tower’s center is the core, supporting most of the load. It consists of three shafts: one for the elevator; one for air ducts and other mechanical uses; and a third for the stairs.
-- Pipes extended up through the core’s central shaft to supply laboratories with illuminating gas, compressed air, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and steam.
-- The core goes 54 feet below ground.
-- The tower is ensconced in scaffolding for an extensive restoration of the entire facade’s masonry and glass. Nearly 14,000 pieces of scaffolding are being used.
-- SCJ spends $4 million to $6 million annually on upkeep of the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings.
Wright's 'Usonia' now on display at SC Johnson
RACINE — Friday SC Johnson unveiled “Usonia: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Vision of the American Home,” a new, free exhibit at the SC Johnson Gallery: At Home with Frank Lloyd Wright. The gallery is on the company’s main campus at 1525 Howe St.
SCJ said the exhibit expands on the legacy of the company’s partnership with Wright. “Usonia” is a term that described his architectural vision for the development of cities featuring affordable and practical but beautiful, homes. Wright designed his first Usonian home during the Great Depression as an attempt to bring great architecture to every person, a challenge which con-cerned him throughout his career.
Through his Usonian period, Wright pioneered new ideas related to energy, space and material efficiency. In 1936 he completed his first Usonian house for Herbert Jacobs, a newspaper man in Madison. The Usonian exhibit is a model of that home, on special loan from the Milwaukee Art Museum.