Accidental Critic: Frank Lloyd Wright in Racine, Wis.


Interested in architecture? Check.

Like free stuff? Check.

Live in the Midwest? Check.

Ready for a day-trip adventure? Check.

Having checked off all the requirements, I was off—to tour the S.C. Johnson Company headquarters designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Racine, Wis., courtesy of a free shuttle-bus tour offered by S.C. Johnson in conjunction with the Chicago Architecture Biennial.

If you live anywhere near Chicago and like architecture, this is a can’t-miss combination. You’ll see both the original Johnson headquarters building and the Wright-designed research tower that was added later. You’ll also see Fortaleza Hall, a building designed by Lord Norman Foster to house both a museum and Johnson employee facilities; and Wingspread, the home Wright designed for H.F. Johnson, Jr., and his family. Plus, during your bus ride, you’ll view an interesting movie about the Johnson family, along with parts of a Ken Burns documentary about Frank Lloyd Wright.

And you’ll stop at a kringle bakery, just in case you need a pastry fix (or lunch).

For me, pretty much every part of this was interesting and informative. Except the kringle factory, which was simply delicious.

Interviewed about his documentary, Ken Burns said the Johnson headquarters building was his favorite work by Frank Lloyd Wright. I’m partial to Unity Temple myself, but I can understand Burns’ choice. This is an office building like no other I’ve ever seen, and it’s astonishing to think that Wright designed it in the 1930s. It’s wide open, filled with natural light, and seems to encourage community and collaboration. There are no little boxes—offices or cubes—isolating workers from one another. Managers got a different style of desk from their underlings, but no walled offices.

If one thing disappointed me, it was that the tour offers only limited access to the main headquarters building. You see the main floor from the front, but you don’t get to walk far into the building, and there’s no access upstairs. You do, however, get to sit in the Wright-designed office chairs (not the three-legged version that people toppled over in, but the four-legged version Wright offered to solve that little balance problem), open the drawers on the desks, and generally get a feel for working in the space. Greater access would be nice, but without it you still get a great view of this innovative and still-unmatched work of architecture.

Over in the research tower, you get full access to two floors—a square one, and a round one. Yes, round. The building stretches 15 floors into the air, alternating between square and round floors. You don’t see this so clearly from the outside (although there’s a really fascinating picture on the S.C. Johnson website that was taken during the construction and clearly shows the shapes and the cantilever system that supports them), but you definitely see the roundness from within. You also see research facilities and equipment from the period when the floors were in use as working labs, plus exhibits describing the work that went on there and providing interesting architectural information and anecdotes about the construction project.

To cap off the Frank Lloyd Wright portion of the agenda, you head off to nearby Wingspread, stopping on the way for a quick look at the exterior of the Thomas P. Hardy House, also designed by Wright (on the right side of the bus, if you want to secure the best seats for viewing). Wright’s houses often feel a bit cramped to me inside, and Wingspread was no exception; but the exterior is really something special.

Especially striking to me was an aerial view of the home offered in the short video that runs in a loop in one of the interior rooms. It shows how this house integrates into—or sprouts organically out of—the land around it. As a bonus: While no interior photography is allowed in the buildings on the Johnson headquarters campus, the inside of Wingspread is fair game.

But Wait—There’s more!

I mentioned above that this tour isn’t only about Frank Lloyd Wright. There’s an additional building on the Johnson campus that’s included, and it’s also special. It’s Lord Foster’s Fortaleza Hall, which is worth your time both on its own architectural merits and for the Wright gallery that it houses. The building’s architectural features include a stunning jungle-garden fountain wall; and a wood-inlaid map of North and South America on the floor of the basement-level atrium, below a replica airplane that’s explained to you by both your tour guide and the movie you saw on the bus ride to Racine. You don’t get a lot of time in this building on this particular tour, which is a shame; I suspect it had a lot more to offer than what I was able to take in during our short visit. And although once again no photography is allowed inside, you can see a bit of the floor—and of course the airplane—in this shot captured from outside.

This bus tour is offered Thursdays through Sundays from now through Jan. 7, 2018. If you can get yourself to downtown Chicago and find time in your busy end-of-year schedule for a day trip, book now. Although it’s free, you do need to reserve a seat. If you can’t fit this in before Jan. 7, you can still tour all of these buildings for free, but you’ll be on your own for trip planning and transportation to and from. Information on tours of all the Johnson campus buildings and Wingspread is available on the S.C. Johnson website.

S.C. Johnson Campus – Architecture & Tour Information

Chicago Architecture Biennial

Frank Lloyd Wright: A Film by Ken Burns (YouTube)

Unity Temple

Frank Lloyd Wright Trust

Kim Kishbaugh is no kind of artist at all, but a lover of art in many different forms. She travels through life with an open mind and open eyes in search of magic, and sometimes finds it. She is Escape Into Life‘s social media editor and a long-time journalist with an unsettling history of seeing the companies she works for go out of business. She blogs occasionally at kkish.net.