Why Frank Lloyd Wright piled 60 tons on a lily pad (pictures)

Officials doubted that the famed architect's Johnson Wax headquarters in Racine, Wis., was structurally sound. But no one questions the master. CNET Road Trip 2013 checked out the stunning building.

Daniel Terdiman
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
1 of 22 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The great workroom

RACINE, Wis. -- Frank Lloyd Wright is famous for many of the incredible homes he designed -- Fallingwater, the Robie House, Taliesin, and so many more. But his design for the SC Johnson Wax company headquarters in this town just south of Milwaukee has touched many more people on a daily basis than any of those masterpieces ever did.

The highlight of the building is its world-renowned Great Workroom of the headquarters' administration building, a half-acre open space filled by nearly 60 21-foot-tall dendriform (shaped liked a tree) columns that almost seem to float throughout the room.

The great triumph of the columns, which are also collectively known as a lily pad, is that they effortlessly hold up the roof, allowing for walls made partially of glass tubes -- a design that allows a great deal of natural light to flood the space during the day.

As part of Road Trip 2013, CNET's Daniel Terdiman jumped at the chance to see how the great architect could achieve what to others seemed certain to defy the laws of physics.

2 of 22 SC Johnson
Though the SC Johnson company was fully on board with Wright's design, there was just one problem: the Wisconsin Industrial Commission couldn't believe that the 21-foot-tall columns meant to hold up the building's roof, which were just nine inches in diameter at the base, could possibly carry such a load. As a result, they denied permission for the great master to proceed.

Seventy-four years after the building's opening, one might wonder how Wright convinced the commission to change its mind. The answer: He had workers pile as much as 60 tons of sandbags on top of one of the columns, which only needed to hold 12 tons under his design.

By the end of the demonstration, seen here in a photograph from 1937, the commission reversed its decision in less than 24 hours, and the building became part of American's great architectural heritage.

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Great workroom natural light

Thanks to the masterful design of the columns, the roof and walls of the SC Johnson administration building didn't need to have structural supports spaced along the walls, as most buildings did. That allowed Wright to build in long sections high on the walls with glass tubing that let in natural light from the outside.
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Walkway to R&D building

Another highlight of the SC Johnson headquarters is this walkway, which connects the administration building -- opened in 1939 -- with the research and development building, which opened in 1950 as Wright's second major commission for the family-owned company.
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Sitting area and lily pad

The administration building is full of aesthetic surprises, like this second-floor seating area, which sticks out over the main floor, and which is underneath one of the signature lily pad-like columns.
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Great workroom from second level

A look at the great workroom from the administration building's second level.
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Art patterns in the glass

Wright is famous for the art glass he often used in houses he built in urban environments, glass that let in natural light, but which provided privacy for those inside.

At the SC Johnson headquarters in Racine, Wright used a similar concept -- artistic glass, made out of tubes, that let in natural light, but kept what went on inside the building private.

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The open space of an oval-shaped interior passageway in the administration building is interrupted only by the signature columns.
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Spiral staircase to bathroom

Bathrooms are located below the Great Workroom, meaning that employees who need to use the restroom must climb down this spiral staircase.
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Elevator cage

Though some use the stairs, employees in the administration building can also take the elevator. This is the Wright-designed elevator cage.
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Elevator open

A look inside the elevator cage in the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed SC Johnson headquarters administration building in Racine, Wis.
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Tube pattern in the ceiling

Natural light flows into the building through a skylight made with interconnected glass tubes.
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Desk with mailslots

To this day, employees who work in the SC Johnson headquarters administration building sit at desks designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, like this one. The desks have three levels, like the building, and have Wright's famous linear aesthetic.
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Swing drawer

A look at one of the drawers in the desks, which is designed to swing out, allowing full access to its contents.
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Three-legged chair

Wright also designed three-legged chairs for the company's employees, but after many workers had trouble keeping from tipping over, Wright agreed to design a four-legged version.
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Though the Great Workroom is flooded in natural light during the day, it does require lighting when it gets dark.
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R&D tower

Today, the R&D building is being fully restored, after years of use took a heavy toll on the building's brick facade and the glass tubing that was used to let in large amounts of natural light. This is what the building looked like before the restoration began.
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View and no view

The R&D building was designed with glass tubing around its entire exterior, allowing natural light to flood in. But the years have taken their toll on the building, and now, its brick and glass facades are being restored and replaced.

Here, we see a section along one wall where some of the tubing has already been replaced with all-new glass, while some has yet to be fitted. That means that, for the moment, there is a view out of the building that will never again be possible once all the new tubing is installed.

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Tubing in place

The key to installing the new -- and restored -- glass tubing is mounting them on special gaskets along the building's side, as seen here.
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Old gasket

This is an original gasket from the building, which has been taken off for cleaning. Once cleaned, it will be remounted in order to have tubing fitted over it.
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Tubes stacked for cleaning

Though much of the straight tubing on the building's sides is being entirely replaced, SC Johnson decided to keep the curved tubes that were mounted on the building's corners. As a result, workers are meticulously cleaning these tubes. This is a stack of the curved tubes, which are awaiting cleaning.
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Numbered for remounting

These curved tubes have already been cleaned and are now marked so that workers know exactly where they are supposed to be re-mounted.

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