Did Frank Lloyd Wright create America's greatest office?

Many would argue that the Great Workroom at SC Johnson headquarters in Racine, Wis., is the most beautiful office space in the U.S. CNET Road Trip 2013 had to investigate and decide.

The Great Workroom in the administration building of the SC Johnson headquarters in Racine, Wis., one of Frank Lloyd Wright's most famous projects. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

RACINE, Wis. -- There's always stiff competition for the title of America's best workplace. But when it comes to the country's best work space, the lucky people who spend their days in the administration building at SC Johnson headquarters may well have the bragging rights.

Designed by celebrated architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the building in this town just south of Milwaukee defies logic -- and, some thought, physics. Its signature element is 60 21-foot-tall columns that fill its famous half-acre open Great Workroom.

Together, the columns resemble a lily pad, and seem so light and airy that when Wright was designing the building in 1937, the Wisconsin Industrial Commission refused to give him permission to proceed with the concept. They simply couldn't believe that the columns could hold the 12 tons they each would have to carry in order to support the roof.

But Wright wasn't known as a genius for nothing. He piled 60 tons of sandbags on top of a single column, and within 24 hours, the commission had reversed its decision. In 1939, the building opened, and ever since, many of the employees of the company behind products like Pledge, Ziploc, Glade, Windex, Raid, Off, and others, have gotten to work in an environment that often leaves visitors speechless.

Long a fan of Wright's work -- which includes masterpieces like Fallingwater , the Marin County (Calif.) Civic Center , the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, the Robie House , and others -- I visited Racine earlier this week as part of Road Trip 2013 for a chance to see the SC Johnson headquarters first hand.

The building didn't disappoint. Indeed, no matter how prepared I thought I was for the spectacle of the famed Great Workroom, I was still blown away by the grandeur, the geometric brilliance, and even the simplicity of the space. After all, one of the main reasons the Wisconsin Industrial Commission initially denied Wright its permission to build was that the columns seem so light and insignificant, despite their height, that it's nearly impossible to believe how strong they truly are.

Daniel Terdiman

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That's especially true because their design seems upside down. While they're 18 feet in diameter at the ceiling, they are just nine inches across at the floor. How something like that could hold 60 tons is a small bit of Frank Lloyd Wright magic. But that's exactly what they do.

And because of that magic, the administration building doesn't need the kind of structural supports in the walls that almost every other building needs. That means that circling three sides of the giant room at the juncture of the walls and the ceiling are long strips of connected glass tubes that let natural light flood in without sacrificing strength. As a result, this interior space seems almost to be outside, especially if you suspend disbelief for a moment and imagine the columns -- as many do -- as lily pads, or even as a forest of trees.

Yet, despite all that, many of the columns are hollow. And that's because they columns themselves make up most of the roof, with the large spaces between them filled with glass tubes that allow even more natural light to fill the room.

And today, the room appears much as it did when it opened in 1939. It is still filled with dozens of employees' desks, all of which were designed by Wright himself, and which mimic the building itself with three flat geometric levels.

Of course, while Wright was a master of design, his buildings were not without fault. And the SC Johnson headquarters is no exception. Thanks to the difficulties sealing the joints of the 43 miles of glass tubes in the ceiling and walls, the building suffered the kinds of leaks that have plagued many other Wright buildings. According to Racine's "Journal Times," SC Johnson undertook a major project between 2005 and 2008 to fix the problem.

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.

The project was a success. With new insulated skylights, acrylic tubes over the reception area, and other modifications to both the lobby and the Great Workroom, the entire space is now said to be brighter than ever.

R&D building restoration
As a company, SC Johnson has long been a big fan of Frank Lloyd Wright. With the success of the company's 1939 administration building, the company decided to double-down on the great architect's work, and in 1950, it opened its brand-new research and development center, a 155-foot-tall and 40-foot square tower with 50 feet below grade and a 13-foot-thick core that everything hangs off. That makes it one of the tallest cantilevered buildings in the United States, and allowed Wright to wrap the tower in layers of glass tubes designed to let natural light flood in, much like in the administration building next door.

But as with the administration building, the years have not been kind to the R&D tower's glass façade, or the brick layers between each floor, and today, SC Johnson is fully restoring it. One benefit is that the public will for the first time be able to visit the tower, much as they can tour the administration building.

Original Pyrex tubes used in the corners of the SC Johnson research and development building that are being cleaned before being re-installed as part of the building's complete restoration. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Now, workers are feverishly replacing the entire brick façade, while also replacing the straight glass tubing from each side of the tower, and restoring the curved tubes from its corners.

When the project is complete, SC Johnson's headquarters will once again resemble its 1950s-era look, upgraded of course with the technology of the second decade of the 21st century. And Wright fans will surely continue to come to visit the building that inspired "Life" magazine to compare the building and the 1939 World's Fair, "Future historians may well decide that a truer glimpse of the shape of things to come than is represented by the New York World's Fair was given in a single structure built strictly for business--the Administration Building of S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc., in Racine, Wisconsin."

 

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