Carefree highway: Day 2
I started my day in Racine, Wis., with a tour of the SC Johnson headquarters. Wright designed two buildings there, the administration building and the now-closed Research Tower.
The company offers tours of the administration building (and a non-Wright building, Fortaleza Hall) for free on Fridays and Saturdays. Interior photos are not allowed in either place, which is a shame, because you have to see some of the stunts Wright pulled off to believe them – and Fortaleza Hall has some pretty cool elements, too, including an amphibious plane suspended from the ceiling in an auditorium that is almost all glass.
I reserved a tour online a few weeks ago and checked Saturday morning to see if an earlier one had opened up. No way. The next available tour was mid-July.
So I drove on beyond the headquarters and stopped at Lake Michigan. Racine has done a terrific job of developing its lakefront. Folks were boating, fishing, walking and cycling all over the place.
I went back to the Johnson facility and checked in at a strange building. The Golden Rondelle was built for the 1964 World Fair in New York. It’s like a miniature Assembly Hall, painted gold, and plunked down into part of another building. Some cool spaces, but weird.
Inside, though, when you check in for your tour, you can sit in one of the chairs designed by Wright. These have padding and they’re actually comfortable.
Then, it’s off on the tour. Through locked gates and with a tempo that discourages straggling, the guides – one in front, one at the back of the group – still manage to tell the story of a remarkable building. Wright used columns that mushroom out overhead and interlock to distribute and support the weight of the floors. The best anecdote from the guides is that Wright claimed the columns would support 12,000 pounds each, but a building-safety commission in Wisconsin didn’t believe it. So Wright installed one and piled 12,000 pounds on it. The commission was satisfied, but Wright wasn’t: He kept going till the column had 60,000 pounds and no damage.
The columns – 18 ½ feet wide at the top and 9 inches wide at the base – are in the Great Workroom, a half-acre of open workspace where Wright designed essentially everything, from the columns to the glass tubes that diffused light from outside to the desks and in- and outboxes.
There are two elevators, called bird cages because that’s what they look like. We took the stairs to a mezzanine, and everything looks different from there. You get a more complete feel for the space, its vastness and cohesion.
The tour goes on up to the third floor, where there’s a skyway between two parts of the complex, and while it’s quite warm, the tubes of glass that are everywhere in place of windows look especially cool here. Wish I had a picture to share.
Wright didn’t design Fortaleza Hall, which houses a replica of the amphibious plane used to go to Brazil, where palm trees produced the wax that made the company. Still, it’s a very cool space, an open circle with the plane suspended from the ceiling, and on the floor below – and below ground level – a map of the Americas made like a jigsaw puzzle of 3-inch squares of wood with an inlay of the flight path from Wisconsin.
A new gallery space just opened on the lower level, and the first exhibit is dedicated to Wright
There’s an amazing wall of plants behind an indoor mid-air waterfall that cascades onto a reflecting pool of incredibly polished black stone. A rainforest indoors.
Enough of this. It was time to head to my next destination. Another place I’d never seen, and another day to avoid the Interstates.
I left Racine on Wisconsin 20, headed west. About an hour into the drive, I hit Waterford, where I found a city park with a small pavilion, some playground equipment, a couple of picnic tables and the Fox River, with weeping willows along the shore. Perfect place for a picnic lunch.
This is a part of the trip I am enjoying, the ability to stop or double back and photograph the odd things that will appear at the side of the road. I could have bought a nearly complete band setup – two guitars, an amp, a drum set. And there was the strangest collection of cars that had clearly been sitting for a long time. Someone had once taken care to line them all up, long before the trees grew up around them.
I got to Madison in the early evening, checked my stuff at the hotel, and made my way toward my next stop.
Monona Terrace is a convention and community center that Wright never built. He designed it, in 1938, but it wasn’t until just before he died in 1959 that he signed off on the final plans.
That wasn’t enough to get it built. A brochure describes political bickering as the holdup that kept the building as a concept until decades later, when Madison voters approved it in 1992 and it opened five years later on the shore of Lake Monona.
Either up close or from across the lake, the place looks like nothing else around it – although a brochure describes Wright’s intent to mimic the circle of the Capitol dome, which is a few blocks away, in the design of Monona Terrace. On a Saturday evening, it was in heavy use: a wedding reception, a tattoo convention, lots of bicyclists using the path that follows its curve along the lakeshore, and plenty of people fishing from its edge.
There is a vast expanse of rooftop space, including a small outdoor café at one end. Great place to have a drink and look at the lake.
Sunday is my final day of Wright-related destinations. While I will probably stop at several, there’s one in particular I haven’t seen. Care to guess what it might be?