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Frank Lloyd Wright and the House of Wax

Jeffrey Syken

It seems somehow innocuous that a product as mundane and utilitarian as floor wax would be the catalyst for the creation of one of the greatest buildings of the 20th Century, by one of the greatest architects of any century: Frank Lloyd Wright, but that’s exactly what happened. It was the quintessential Wright building, with the “scoundrel genius” at his very best - and worst. What made it all possible was a product called “Glo-Coat” – a self-polishing floor wax introduced by S.C. Johnson & Son in the early 1930s. Its commercial success (at the height of the Great Depression) would allow the grandson of the founder – Hibbard F. Johnson, to pursue his ideals of enlightened capitalism by creating the “greatest office building in the world” for his 250 employees. To do that, he would need the “greatest architect in the world.”

For FLW, the Johnson Wax project came at a critical juncture in his life and career. Nearing seventy, it seemed his best years were behind him, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lament that: “there are no second acts in American lives,” seemed especially true in his case. In 1932 he and his third wife, Oglivanna, founded the Taliesin Fellowship. The first few years were barren of architectural work and the focus was on establishing the Fellowship, but by 1935 things would change. Edgar Kaufman, Sr. – the wealthy father of an apprentice, asked Wright to design for him a country house in southwestern Pennsylvania. The result was Fallingwater, the greatest building of the 20th Century (according to the American Institute of Architects). On its heels (in 1936) came the commission for the S.C. Johnson Wax & Son Administration Building. FLW’s second act had begun.

When FLW first saw the site - in the industrial South-side of Racine, Wisconsin, he was not impressed. He called it “worthless” and tried to convince H.F. Johnson to move to the country and build there a model corporate campus surrounded by worker’s housing (akin to his cherished Broadacre City “Decentralization” scheme). But Hib Johnson was adamant and Oglivanna warned him that if he didn’t oblige his client, he would lose the all-important commission. He conceded, but in his design for the building he turned everything inward, shutting-out the ugliness of the surroundings and allowing only “the light of heaven” in through an innovative but technically deficient system of Pyrex glass-tube clerestories (a/k/a “Sunbands”) and skylights. In true Wrightian fashion, the building would come in many fold over budget and take three years (rather than the one year predicted) to build – and the roof inevitably leaked; a FLW trademark flaw. But that’s what happens when you leave a work of art out in the rain.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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