A New Take on Wright’s Work

© Mark Hertzberg (2021)

Most of the hundreds of thousands of words written about Frank Lloyd Wright’s work are about his design aesthetic, his life, or are histories of the homes and public buildings he designed. A new book by Joseph M. Siry offers a new analysis of his work. Siry puts the mechanical engineering of four of Wright’s landmark buildings – the Larkin Building, the SC Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower, and the Rogers Lacy Hotel – in a broader context of American architecture. 

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Siry, who teaches art history at Wesleyan University, has just published his fifth book, Air-Conditioning in Modern American Architecture, 1890-1970  (University Park: The Penn State University Press;, 2021). His previous Wright books are Beth Sholom Synagogue: Frank Lloyd Wright and Modern Religious Architecture (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012) and Unity Temple – Frank Lloyd Wright and Architecture for Liberal Religion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

BC 2015 WSA Siry 006.jpgSiry, left, accepts a Wright Spirit Award from Scott Perkins and the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy in 2015.

The Larkin Building in Buffalo (1903) was one of the nation’s first air conditioned buildings. Wright, of course, eschewed traditional design. One of the building’s signature features was its large central atrium work space. Wright put the building’s mechanical systems in the four corner stair towers and in four adjacent towers. Russell Sturgis, a contemporary critic, was flummoxed by the design. He wrote in a 1906 article in the Architectural Record wondering why there were “no chimneys, giving an opportunity for an agreeable breaking of the masonry into the sky and the sky into the masonry?” 

The SC Johnson Administration Building was designed in 1936. Air conditioning had already proven to be economically beneficial in a variety of factories – including at the Ford Motor Company – in improving efficiency not only in terms of workers’ comfort and morale, but also in processes where precise temperature and humidity controls were vital in machining and for ink-drying in printing. A growing number of hotels, offices, retail shops, and movie theaters were incorporating the new technology which was also displayed throughout the 1933 Century of Progress World’s Fair in Chicago. An unanticipated benefit was that hay fever sufferers no longer felt the need to call in sick when working in air conditioning (including Congressmen and U.S. senators when the U.S. Capitol was air conditioned in the late 1930s). Later, the economic growth of the South after World War II was spurred by companies’ abilities to air condition their factories, hotels, and stores.

Wright called the Larkin Building “the male sire of its feminine offspring,” the SC Johnson Administration Building in Racine, designed in 1936. H. F. Johnson Jr. was the company president. He famously gave workers the day off if it were 90 degrees or warmer outside. Johnson charged both J. Mandor Matson, his first architect, and Wright with designing what was then commonly called a “windowless” office building.

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The Administration Building opened in April 1939, concurrent with the opening of the New York’s World’s Fair. An article in LIFE magazine previewing the fair noted that while it was certainly wonderful, people should travel to Racine to see the streamlined new SC Johnson office building if they wanted to glimpse the future. The Research Tower, designed in 1943/1944 and constructed between 1947 and 1950, was the coda to Wright’s office building. The mechanicals in the former are in the “nostril” atop the tap root tower, just as they were in the two “nostrils” (Wright’s term) atop the Administration Building. 

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LR Great Workroom 061.jpgVentilation grills are visible on the face of the mezzanine of the Great Workroom.

LR Bud Nelson 014a.jpgThe Tower’s exhaust plenums are the two kidney shapes.

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LR Tower 5.1.14 020.jpgCeiling ventilation in the Research Tower was built into ceiling light fixtures.

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The Rogers Lacy Hotel in Dallas (1946) was not realized because Lacy died in December 1947. I had little awareness of Wright when I was in high school (1964-1968) but one of my classmates was Lacy’s grandson. My classmate’s father was one of the architects of the Houston Astrodome, the world’s first air conditioned stadium, which opened in 1965.

Siry concludes, “In the Johnson buildings, Wright reinvented the windowless type, creating workspaces that were better illuminated and apparently more open to the outdoors than many windowed buildings. His client, Johnson, had provided the impetus to devise optimal air-conditioned interiors. But Wright reinterpreted that aim to create unprecedentedly inventive architecture, an his integration of mechanical systems into his aesthetic inspired such later modernists as Louis Kahn.”

Siry’s book was an outgrowth of the section of his 2009 course on contemporary world architecture focusing on sustainability and energy conservation. “It gradually was clear that HVAC systems had a vast history in relation to modern architecture that had only been touched on, but those systems had been a huge factor in buildings’ energy demands. So I thought it would be useful to try to lay out the history of air-conditioning from its origins through into the 1970s, before energy consciousness took hold in architecture.” He is now focusing on developments since the early 1970s, “to trace the history of conservation methods and thinking about sustainability.” The new book took nine years of research and writing. There is no timeline for a succeeding volume.

If readers burst out of their Wright bubble, they will find the book as a whole is captivating. I wrote Siry that as a layperson (and someone who did miserably in science classes) I never thought I would be entranced by a book about air conditioning. But I was. The book can be ordered from the publisher or through your favorite local bookshop. I urge people to support local book shops and book publishers, rather then reflexively order from you know where.

https://www.psupress.org/books/titles/978-0-271-08694-1.html

Siry is Professor Art History and the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of the Humanities at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.  

Addendum on April 29:  Radiant floor heating was used in the Administration Building. Wright also used it in Wingspread, the home he designed for Johnson in 1937. Karen Johnson Boyd, H.F.’s daughter, who grew up in Wingspread, told me that it was unpredictable whether one might freeze or burn their toes on the floor in the morning. When she and her then-husband Willard Keland commissioned Wright to build the Keland House in 1954, one of the conditions was that Wright let a radiant floor heating expert from Indiana handle that aspect of the job, she said. He agreed to do so.

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Rainy Day Post #3 – A Wright Potpourri

Photos (c) Mark Hertzberg (2020)

I have promised you one more “rainy day post,” cleaning up pictures that have been waiting on my desktop for the right context to post them in. This is a smattering of photos of Frank Lloyd Wright sites I have visited in one context or another since July 2018. While I shoot literal photos of Wright buildings (“head shots” we called them in the newsroom), I also look for photos of details of Wright’s designs. I am generally not sharing interior photos of private homes. I try to avoid looking at other photographers’ interpretations of Wright buildings before I visit them so that I see the structures through my own eye and lens, rather than possibly copy another photographer’s vision.

The photos are in chronological order, beginning with a wonderful trip to the Detroit area that July two years ago. We were with our good friends Bob and Jeanne Maushammer from Virginia. Jeanne’s exposure to Wright began when she was a teenager, hired to babysit at the Thomas P. Hardy House in Racine for Schuyler and Peterkin Seward, stewards of the house between 1957 – 1963. The Maushammers dutifully chronicle their Wright adventures in a well worn copy of William Allin Storrer’s The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. I will copy and paste Jeanne’s recollections of the Hardy House from my 2006 book about the house at the end of this blog post.

Our first stop was at the Affleck House in Bloomfield Hills, where Dale Gyure graciously gave us a private tour:

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We were fortunate to next get a private tour of the Melvin Smith House. The light was not as subtle as the architecture in the early afternoon:

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Then we were off to the Turkel House, lovingly restored by our good friends Norm Silk and Dale Morgan. Jeanne has wonderful stories of having seen the then-distressed house ca. 2004 right after a questionable tenant had been evicted. We had bid on a dinner at the house, to benefit the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. Norm went above and beyond shopping for us in a Middle Eastern market, and we had a lovely meal in the garden. The Maushammers, Cindy (Hertzberg), and Norm:

Turkel House Dinner 010.jpgWe planned to stay only a couple of hours and not overstay our welcome, but we were like family enjoying the house in the living room after dinner until past 11 p.m.! The light was harsh when we arrived at 5 p.m., and I wondered how it would change through the evening:

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Our next adventure was when Bob and Jeanne treated us to a stay at the Palmer House in Ann Arbor:

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I was then on tour in familiar territory in Wisconsin, helping lead tours for Road Scholar, first in Racine at SC Johnson and at Wingspread. I have visited and photographed these wonderful spaces umpteen times, and always look for a fresh way to see them:

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I climbed these stairs at Wingspread countless times before seeing this photo:

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I was then taken, again, by the fixtures at the Annunication Greek Orthodox Church in Wauwatosa (suburban Milwaukee):

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After touring Racine and Milwaukee, we take our Road Scholar guests to Madison and Spring Green. First, a detail of the ceiling of Jacobs 1:

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Then, a light well in Anthony Puttnam’s interpretation of Monona Terrace:

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The trip culminates at Taliesin – of course – after seeing the Unitarian Meeting House in Madison and Wyoming Valley School, with lunch at Riverview Terrace. Our introduction to Taliesin is a pause at the dam:

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I finish with Jeanne’s recollection of babysitting at the Hardy House and a “selfie” there:

(From “Frank Lloyd Wright’s Thomas P. Hardy House,” written and photographed by Mark Hertzberg, Pomegranate: 2006):

Jeanne (Weins) Maushammer, who baby-sat for the Sewards, recalls growing up nearby. “The house was well-known to everyone in the neighborhood.  People would go to the 14th Street public beach there and see the house just a short distance away.  It did not look like a private residence.  Visitors from outside the area – even across town – would see two openings that could easily be mistaken for bath house entrances, and try to go in to change their clothes.

“Sometimes when you were driving around with out-of-town folks, they would ask ‘What is that?’  They did not recognize it as a house, because it was so different from the other homes around it, and because it was next to the beach.  Neighbors knew what it really was.  The Johnson Wax complex was down the street from us, so the Hardy House seemed to be appropriate.  My folks often told me of their witnessing the construction of the Administration Building and of seeing Frank Lloyd Wright.  The Johnson buildings were understood and accepted by visitors, but not the ‘beach house.’

“My friends and I used to go down to the beach all the time.  We could not get close enough to the property to get a good look at it.  We always had to look through the trees.  We could not see how it blended into the hill side.  That added to the mystery of it.  From the street, all that people could see was just that box.

“I knew it was a Frank Lloyd Wright house before I first went inside.  What I did not realize was how he proportioned houses to his small frame.  I remember thinking when inside for the first time:  ‘I am 5’4” but wow, these doorways are low.’  It was dark and raining that particular day, so I did not get to appreciate the house’s real beauty.  After I had been there several times and had a chance to explore it, to stand in that living room and on the balcony, and to take in the view, I realized it was incredible.

“My husband has never seen the inside of the house, except in photos, but in our wildest dreams we would like to buy it and come back to Racine.”

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Rainy Day Post #2 – Guggenheim Dome Evolution

Photos (c) Mark Hertzberg (2020)

Saturday I wrote that it’s like a rainy day, and I am taking time to clean up my desktop and post some things that have been in limbo. There will be a third Rainy Day Frank Lloyd Wright post – the one with what I referred to as a “smattering” of photos from many Wright sites – possibly tomorrow.

I noted in my 2004 book Wright in Racine that Wright’s initial design for the dome of the Guggenheim Museum in 1943 was identical to the one he later used for the dome built over the advertising department in the SC Johnson Administration Building in Racine. That space was added concurrently with the construction of the SC Johnson Research Tower (designed in 1943/44, constructed 1947-1950). (The space is now home to the company’s Global Affairs and related departments)

The Advertising Department’s dramatic glass dome is now an architectural icon of the company. It embodies the design Wright proposed in 1943 for the Guggenheim Museum.
The dome now has a white cover now to lessen the heat from the sun.

Visitors to the 2017 “Unpacking the Archive” exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (MoMA) saw the Johnson version of the dome on the Guggenheim model in the exhibit:

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This exhibit was labled: “Tension ring study model for Johnson Wax Research Tower, Racine, Wisconsin  1943-50  Steel.” There was no mention of its similarity to the Guggenheim proposal.

Wright’s final design for the dome has been photographed many times:

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SC Johnson Buildings

(c) Mark Hertzberg 2020

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There is something indescribable for me in Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs of the SC Johnson Administration Building (1936) and SC Johnson Research Tower (1943/44) in Racine, Wisconsin. I gaze at them every day during my daily bike ride.

I found the lighting particularly soft and nice the evening of June 16, riding after spending the day photographing the newly restored curtain at Hillside Theatre and the desolate empty drafting room at Hillside (the two previous posts on this website).

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The pictures were taken through the fence at the Golden Rondelle guest relations center which cannot reopen until the COVID-19 crisis passes. This is the first view that visitors have of the buildings, as they come onto campus at 14th Street. LR SC Johnson Admin Building Tower 6.16.20 005.jpg

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I look forward to being able to once again get past the fence and enjoy – and photograph – the wonderful interior spaces again.

 

SC Johnson Carport

(c) Mark Hertzberg (2019)

These are photos of the carport at the SC Johnson Administration Building in Racine on July 27, 2019 when we were taking a friend from New York City on his first tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed buildings:

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SCJ Shapes

(c) Mark Hertzberg 2017

Circles seemed to be what caught my eye today when I shot a few quick pictures at SC Johnson today while accompanying 35 guests who are on a two-state Road Scholar / Jewish Community Center of Chicago architectural tour. These were taken in public areas where photos are allowed without special permission or arrangements.

SCJ 10.4.17 007.jpgThe Research Tower, upper right, peeks out from above the short columns on the walkway to the Administration Building carport.

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The carport presents a myriad of shapes to play with.

SCJ 10.4.17 014.jpgFinally, there is this picture at the entrance to the Administration Building.

Photographing Wright

Photos (c) Mark Hertzberg 2017

I have been accompanying a Road Scholar architecture tour in Racine, Milwaukee, Madison, and Spring Green. Below are some photos I’ve shot during the tour, as well as some photos from a shoot at SC Johnson Tuesday:

The ceiling in the entry way of Wyoming Valley School, Spring Green:Wyoming Valley 2 LR.jpg

Classroom window mitre at Wyoming Valley School:Wyoming Valley LR 1.jpg

View of the Wisconsin River from Riverview Terrace Restaurant:

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The Ceiling in the Assembly Room of Hillside Home School, Spring Green:

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Taliesin, Spring Green:

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Unitarian Meeting House, Madison

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Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Wauwatosa:

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Wingpsread (H.F. Johnson Jr. Home), Wind Point:

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SC Johnson Administration Building, Racine:

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And, finally, one that did not work out…I needed a photo to illustrate Wright’s use of light in the Great Workroom…I did not want the typical documentary photo. I borrowed a fisheye lens from Nikon. I have given it a trial run with some people via email, and they have given it a thumbs down. I am inclined to agree with them. But I had to try it. Here is what that miss looks like:Skylights 9.5.17.jpg

First Wright Heritage Trail Signage Placed on I-94

(c) Mark Hertzberg 2016

The new Frank Lloyd Wright Trail was dedicated this morning in Madison. The trail, which runs from the Illinois – Wisconsin state line to Richland Center, is a joint effort by the state departments of tourism and transportation to highlight the rich heritage of Wright’s work in his native state. About 142 signs have been placed in the last few weeks on I-94 and other highways marking the path to nine Wright sites.

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Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed the bipartisan bill establishing the Trail in a ceremony at Taliesin in March:

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Signs directing motorists to specific public sites such as the SC Johnson Administration Building and Research Tower and Wingspread in Racine will be erected in spring.

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A link to the Department of Tourism page with the official map follows:

http://www.travelwisconsin.com/frank-lloyd-wright

Wright at SCJ

Photos (c) Mark Hertzberg for SC Johnson

SC Johnson announces “Building Relationships: Wright, Johnson, and the SC Johnson Campus,” the fifth iteration of its Frank Lloyd Wright at Home exhibit in Fortaleza Hall on the company campus in Racine, Wis. The exhibit opens Friday May 6. The exhibit traces the design of the Administration Building (1936) and the Research Tower (1944) as well as touching on Wright’s influence on Norman Foster’s design of Fortaleza Hall on the company campus, and Santiago Calatrava’s Quadracci Pavilion at the Milwaukee Art Museum.

LR FLW & SCJ 006.jpgChris Eyerly’s cutaway LEGO model of the Research Tower is one of the first exhibits. LR FLW & SCJ 014.jpg

A mural of the Great Workroom is the backdrop to selected pieces of office furniture that Wright designed for the Administration Building. The American Metal Furniture Co., later Steelcase, was commissioned to build the furniture. Steelcase bought and restored Wright’s Meyer May House in the 1980s as a “thank you” to Wright for giving them the commission during the Great Depression. The highlight of that portion of the exhibit is a suspended or “exploded” desk chair, enabling viewers to see each element of Wright’s design.

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The Norman Foster building and Calatrava’s museum addition are in the last salon of the exhibit, near a video which tells three stories in succession: historic footage of the famous column test at the Administration Building in June, 1937 and time lapse videos of Fortaleza Hall’s and the museum’s construction. Foster’s challenge was to build an inspiring building in the shadows of Wright’s two landmark buildings on the SCJ campus. Calatrava visited the campus as he was designing the museum addition. Wright’s organic architecture is said to have inspired the way he linked downtown Milwaukee to the lakefront museum addition to the original Eero Saarinen building (and its first addition).

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Reservations for free tours of the exhibit, Wright buildings, and Wingspread can be made at: www.scjohnson.com/visit

Frank Lloyd Wright Trail signed into law.

Photos (c) Mark Hertzberg 2016

Walker Wright Heritage Trail

Commemorative pens that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker will use to sign the bipartisan bill to fund a Frank Lloyd Wright Trail between Racine and Richland Center, are on Wright’s table in his drafting room at Taliesin, his home in Spring Green, Monday March 21, 2016. / (c) Mark Hertzberg

The law provides $50,000 funding for highway signs and other marketing to promote Wright’s work in Wisconsin, from the Illinois/Wisconsin state line on I-94 through Racine, Madison, and Spring Green, and ending at the A.D. German Warehouse in Richland Center. Milwaukee is not included in the signage because Wright sites they are not open enough hours and it was thought it best not to divert travelers to sites they might find closed. Three sites in Racine will be included: the SC Johnson Administration Building, the SC Johnson Research Tower, and Wingspread.

Walker Wright Heritage Trail

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker walks out on the cantilevered balcony outside the living room at Taliesin before he signs the bipartisan bill to fund the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail, Monday March 21, 2016. / (c) Mark Hertzberg

Walker Wright Heritage Trail

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, center, chats with the bill’s sponsors on the cantilevered balcony outside the living room at Taliesin before he signs the bipartisan bill to fund the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail, Monday March 21, 2016. / (c) Mark Hertzberg

Walker Wright Heritage Trail

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, right, chats with state representatives Cory Mason (D-Racine) and Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville) and State Sen. Howard Marklein (R- Spring Green), the sponsors of Assembly Bill 512, the bipartisan bill to fund a Frank Lloyd Wright Trail between Racine and Richland Center, in the living room at Taliesin, Wright’s home in Spring Green, Monday March 21, 2016. / (c) Mark Hertzberg

Walker Wright Heritage Trail

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signs the bill to fund the Frank Lloyd Wright Trail between Racine and Richland Center, in Wright’s drafting room at Taliesin, his home in Spring Green, Monday March 21, 2016. / (c) Mark Hertzberg

Walker Wright Heritage Trail

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is applauded after he signs the bipartisan bill to fund a Frank Lloyd Wright Trail between Racine and Richland Center, in Wright’s drafting room at Taliesin, his home in Spring Green, Monday March 21, 2016. Looking on are Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine), left, Sen. Howard Marklein (R- Spring Green), Rep. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville), who introduced the bill, and State Sen. Van Wanggaard (R-Racine), a co-sponsor / (c) Mark Hertzberg

Walker Wright Heritage Trail

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed the bipartisan bill to fund a Frank Lloyd Wright Trail between Racine and Richland Center, in Wright’s drafting room at Taliesin, his home in Spring Green, Monday March 21, 2016. / (c) Mark Hertzberg