Wax On

Chicago Architecture Biennial to offer free tours of Wright-designed Johnson Wax

Midwest Preservation
The Great Workroom at the Johnson Wax Headquarters. Racine, Wisconsin. (Iwan Baan)
The Great Workroom at the Johnson Wax Headquarters. Racine, Wisconsin. (Iwan Baan)

Once again, the Chicago Architecture Biennial and SC Johnson will host free tours of the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed Johnson Wax corporate headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. Located about 75 miles north of Chicago, the campus was built between 1936 and 1939. Along with the 14-story Johnson Wax Research Tower, the administration building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976.

Tours will run from September 16th through January 7th, coinciding with the opening of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Leaving from the Chicago Cultural Center, the tour includes the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings as well as the Norman Foster–designed Fortaleza Hall. On Saturdays and Sundays the tour also stops at Wingspread, a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for Herbert Fisk Johnson Jr., president of S.C. Johnson during the late 1930s.

The Johnson Wax Research Tower, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. (Jack E. Boucher/Wikimedia Commons)

The Johnson Wax campus is often considered one of Wright’s masterworks, in spite of or possibly because of, the controversy surrounding its design and construction. Aside from the notoriously leaky details, which are found in many of Wright’s projects, the buildings were exorbitantly over budget. Scientists in the Research Tower also found the space to be drafty and uncomfortable. Even with these issues, the project was innovative on many levels. The famous dendriform lily pad columns are no less than an engineering feat. At only nine inches wide at the base and 18 feet wide at the top, few believed they would sustain the weight of the roof. When tested, they were able to sustain loads five times that needed. The Research Tower used a structural systemsimilar to Wright’s Price Tower in Texas, complete with cantilevered floor plates and an early curtain wall system.

The tours are free, but seats need to be reserved online.

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