It was a crisp, sunny October Friday. Three of us (all former architectural docents) gathered at a hotel parking lot in Deerfield and headed north for Racine, an epicenter for devotees of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture (in case you thought Oak Park was the only place to see his work). We had an afternoon reservation to tour the S C Johnson world headquarters, most of which was designed by Wright. We had all seen the best-known Administration Building (1939) before, but now the Research Tower (1950) and Fortaleza Hall (2010) also were open for public tours. (All photos by Nancy Bishop, except the Great Workroom photo, which is a WikiCommons image.)
Starting from Deerfield, it was only about an hour until we reached Racine. Our friend Donna had already zeroed in on a lunch spot, the Kewpee Sandwich Shop. Their specialty was plain but delicious burgers and cheeseburgers (or double versions of each) plus French fries—and best of all—real old-fashioned malteds and milkshakes. The Kewpee Sandwich Shop is a throwback, with an art-deco exterior and wall tile bannered with kewpees. Its history can be traced back to a Kewpee Hamburger chain founded in 1923. It was a great lunch.
We were a little early for our tour so we drove around Racine hunting for a famous FLW house. We found the Thomas P Hardy house at 1319 S Main St. Wright designed it in 1905. A renovation was completed in 2013.
The tour begins at the S C Johnson tour center in the Golden Rondelle Theater, originally built as the S C Johnson pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1965-65. After the fair, the Rondelle was dismantled and shipped back to Racine, where it was redesigned by Taliesin Associates, the firm formed by Wright’s apprentices after his death.
Our tour group had a brief orientation and then walked to the Administration Building, setting of Wright’s Great Workroom, an high-ceilinged open office space furnished with Wright-designed office furniture. Our tour guide, Edsel, was well-informed and answered even our most docent-ish arcane questions. (I hate it when a tour guide makes mistakes and I have to decide whether to correct them or not.)
We then walked over to the Research Tower, designed by Wright for the Johnson R&D department to develop products like Pledge furniture polish and Off insect repellent. The building is built in floor stacks with a central utility core but hasn’t been used in many years, since changes in fire safety codes make its use impossible. The 15-storey building has only one tiny elevator so workers and visitors climb 29-inch-wide winding stairs to get to the lab floors that are open—and frozen in time, as if the Johnson chemists were on a lunch break. The office and lab supplies and papers on the desks and lab tables are as interesting as the architecture.
The final stop on the tour is Fortaleza Hall, designed by Foster & Partners (the photos on the firm’s website are spectacular). This 2010 building includes expansive space for historical exhibits about the company plus an area known as the Commons for employee amenities. In the building’s main hall is a replica of the twin-engine Sikorsky amphibian plane that Sam Johnson flew to Fortaleza, Brazil, in 1998, to find Carnauba palms for Johnson wax products.
If you go to Racine, you should also visit Wingspread, a magnificent 14,000 square-foot home that Wright designed in 1936 for H F Johnson Jr. You can book a tour at the website. We toured Wingspread on an earlier visit.
Leaving the S C Johnson area, we took a drive along the beautiful lakefront, with park and recreation areas. It’s close to the Racine Art Museum on Main Street in downtown Racine. RAM is a small museum in a modern building with well-designed exhibits and a gift shop stocked with a fine array of art and design products.
On the second level of RAM, we toured two excellent exhibits. Wayne Higby’s ceramics have a strong southwestern feel in palette and form. I particularly liked the landscape pieces that reminded me of the mesas in southwest Colorado. Wendy Wallen Malinow’s glass sculptures have a vivid playful look.
The gift shop yielded small purchases for all of us. I’m especially fond of the clever windup toys that I know my small grandsons will enjoy. Patience, kids, I’ll be there at Thanksgiving.
It wasn’t quite time to go home yet. We had more food stops to make. We decided to head for everyone’s favorite Danish bakery, O&H Bakery, to check out the kringle. As a former Wisconsinite, I’ve had them before. (You can buy them in Chicago; Treasure Island usually carries them.) We thought buying them at the source might be great, but in fact, they were disappointing. My cream-cheese kringle was just too sweet and the pastry wasn’t flaky. The croissants were fine, however.
Last stop was the famous Brat Stop in Kenosha, to have a quick supper before heading south. And to buy some fresh bratwurst to cook at home. I did that next day, along with a small batch of the family Bohemian sauerkraut. Excellent combination.
A trip to Racine is a great day trip or an overnight stay. You can visit the S C Johnson headquarters and Wingspread as well as RAM. S C Johnson tours (limited to 20 people) are free but reservations are required. See tour information here. Note that you can take photos of the building exteriors but interior photography is not allowed.