Reimagining Wingspread in 50,000 LEGO bricks

(c) Mark Hertzberg

LEGO Wingspread

LEGO Wingspread

This is how Jameson Gagnepain’s adventure at Wingspread starts: unloading two custom-built wood crates and four cardboard boxes, all stuffed with about 50,000 LEGO bricks. In two hours the bricks will have been reassembled into a model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 14,000 sq. ft. home for Herbert F. Johnson, Jr., which will be displayed on the second floor of Wingspread probably into December.

The model is stunning in its detail, the statistics -at the end of the story- are staggering.

LEGO WingspreadWingspread wide LR

First, Gagnepain and his wife, Amy, assemble the five-foot square table the model will sit on.

Each storage box is carefully thought out, explains Gagnepain, “I pack everything as tightly as I can… It’s a little like Russian nesting dolls in there. Lots of sections fitting inside other sections, and every box has shelves in it to make good use of space.”

LEGO Wingspread

Gagnepain starts with a blank “canvas,” if you will, a broad expanse of green LEGOs representing the landscape around the house. There is no hesitation as he spends the next two hours assembling the model of the house.

LEGO Wingspread

He works in IT for a medical supplies company, but LEGOs have been his passion since he was young. The colorful plastic bricks were his expected presents for as long as he can remember. Amy is so understanding, he says, that she suggested their wedding have a LEGO theme.

LEGO Wingspread

Gagnepain scoured the Internet for photos of what the house looked like when it was built, and then took notes during a visit to Wingspread. His biggest challenge was in fashioning daughter Karen Johnson’s cantilevered balcony at the north end of the house. “It took me ages to get right, getting the wood texture right. I built it three or four different ways. I got it right then dropped it and had to start over.” He says the playroom at the east end was another challenge because of the dearth of photos of what it originally looked like.

Amy pours tiny blue bricks into the swimming pool to simulate water. Gagnepain was careful to even show the different levels in the swimming pool.

LEGO Wingspread

A LEGO car, which brings to mind a Mercedes sedan that Wright owned, is parked at the front door.

LEGO Wingspread

The crown of the model is the roof over the Great Room, with its Crow’s Nest:

LEGO Wingspread

If the model is too detailed for some people, they can enjoy the bare-bones LEGO Wingspread he fashioned, as well:

There is even a red Wright “signature tile.” As for the lack of a Frank Lloyd Wright figure, Gagnepain says he will make one as soon as there is a LEGO porkpie hat.

LEGO Wingspread

LEGO Wingspread

Gagnepain and the model are feature in Tom Alphin’s newly released book The LEGO Architect.

LEGO Wingspread by the numbers:

Construction took 500 hours over six months (“Too long,” jokes Amy)

There are an estimated 50,000 LEGO bricks in an estimated 100 different shaped bricks. There are seven color in the building. Most of the home’s Cherokee red bricks are represented by about 10,000 “1×2 plate in Dark Orange” bricks. The grounds and foliage use the seven colors from the building as well as an additional eight colors.

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SCJ Research Tower: Imitation is Flattery

(c) Mark Hertzberg If imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery (Charles Caleb Colton, 1820), then Frank Lloyd Wright’s SC Johnson Research Tower has many admirers. The latest incarnation of the Tower is a Lego model built by Chris Eyerly of Kenosha. It is displayed in Fortaleza Hall on the company campus.

Lego Research Tower

The first spin-off of the Tower was a desk lighter commissioned by H.F. Johnson Jr. in 1946, the year before construction began, to mark the company’s 50th anniversary. Famed industrial design Brooks Stevens delighted in “literally knocking the great Wright down to size” when he designed the lighter, according to Glenn Adamson, who profiled Stevens in 2003 for an exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

Tower Lighter

LR Tower Lighter 052

It was followed sometime after 1960 by a Christmas candle. While the lighters are collectors’ items today, fetching prices up to $700 on sites like eBay, the candle was not as successful, according to the late Serge Logan, who worked in community relations for the company. People liked the “gorgeous smell,” Logan recalled, “I think we got them in Maine somewhere because of the smell of the pines.” But the company that made the candles did not pack them well enough, and many cracked during shipping.

LR Tower Candle 012

There was also a golden charm of the Tower offered for sale to employees in 1971 for $5. It was made by Tiffany & Company. It was packaged in a blue leatherette jewelry case with the Tiffany trademark.

Tower Tiffany Pin

Eyerly, 39, is an IT security engineer who enjoys challenging himself by designing Lego models. He incorporates his admiration of Wright’s work into his hobby. The Tower is his second Wright Lego creation. Six years ago he used 15,000 of the plastic building bricks to make a four-foot wide model of the Frederick Robie House in Chicago.

Lego Research Tower

He uses practical considerations in deciding what to build, “If certain Lego pieces fit the shape of the building, that’s a key that’s something I can build. The round corners (of the Tower) were just the right shape. Realizing I could accomplish that was the impetus I could build that building.”

Lego Research Tower

SC Johnson gave him PDF copies of some of the original drawings for the building. Eighty hours later, over some two and a half months in the summer of 2012, up to 6,000 Lego blocks in eight colors had been transformed into an almost three-foot tall model of Wright’s landmark Tower.

Lego Research Tower

Eyerly planned one floor of the Tower model in a computer Lego CAD program to help him estimate how many pieces he would need. “I don’t do a ton in CAD. It’s mostly a free build, just snapping pieces together. I do a lot of math ahead of time. That’s why I like scale drawings, so I know how many studs (the round knob atop each brick) it needs to be.”

Lego Research Tower

His models don’t come together easily. He had to rebuild the Robie House four times, the Tower twice. “You get to a certain point and realize something won’t work and you take it apart and retry.”

Lego Research Tower

The company learned about the Tower model after Eyerly showed it at the Brick World Lego convention in Wheeling, Illinois, and invited him to display it at their headquarters. Eyerly enjoys peoples’ reactions to his models because they evoke emotional responses, he says. “Wright’s architecture is interesting. It often draws out memories from people. Often you get emotions or feelings from people. It often ties in personally for people, which makes it interesting for me to hear the stories.” That is even more the case with the Tower model because he knows many people who work at SC Johnson. His next model will be Wright’s Bernard Schwartz House (1939) in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Ironically, construction was supervised by Edgar Tafel, one of Wright’s original Taliesin Fellowship the apprentices. Tafel had already supervised construction of the SC Johnson Administration Building and Wingspread, as well as part of Fallingwater.