SC Johnson’s Fortaleza Hall displays Wright lithographs

fortalezaNear Lake Michigan, at the Indiana-Illinois border, is 800-acre Wolf Lake and an unincorporated town best known for its August Onion Days Festival.

If Frank Lloyd Wright had his way, Wolf Lake would have gained a grand amusement park with “lagoons for boating, promenades for strolling and concessions for consuming” – but real estate developer Edward C. Waller wouldn’t bite on the idea.

The architect’s 1895 drawing of the never-built amusement park is one of 43 lithographs in the new “At Home with Frank Lloyd Wright” exhibit at SC Johnson Gallery in Fortaleza Hall, Racine. Project plans for houses, banks, a golf clubhouse and colony of summer cottages are part of the Wasmuth Portfolio that established Wright and his work internationally.

“This portfolio marks the first time that American architecture was making an impact in Europe, and not the other way around,” observes author and photographer Mark Hertzberg of Racine, a Wright specialist. The portfolio was published in 1910, after Wright and the wife of a client spent a year in Europe.

It was a scandalous and financially challenging time for the architect, who proceeded to define his design principles and make them known outside of the United States. His combination of open and versatile interior spaces, simple geometric patterns, indigenous building materials, large windows, multiple skylights (with leaky roofs) and a respectful harmony with nature became known as a distinctive, contemporary American style of construction.

The rendezvous in Europe reinforced Wright’s notions and instincts, says Monica Obniski, Milwaukee Art Museum curator of 20th and 21st century design. Strong geometrics were an emerging part of German architecture, and a smooth integration between buildings and landscapes was evident in Italy.

Wright’s 1893 plans for Winslow House, which still stands as a private home in River Forest, Ill., are the oldest in this exhibit and represent his first attempt at what would become known as Prairie style design. His last Prairie home was the stunning but eclectic Wingspread, built in the 1930s for H.F. “Hib” Johnson, whose Racine company is a global leader in production of household cleaning, pest control and other merchandise.

Wright “was one of the first to want to control interior spaces as well as exterior,” Obniski notes. This “holistic living environment” approach meant he designed furniture, carpeting, vases and more. “His projects were seen as a total work of art.”

She also acknowledges that Wright’s ego “was fully formed,” to the point of bullying and moving furniture to wall hangings years after a project was completed, sold and occupied.

Wright and Johnson, despite a three-decade difference in age, were more like business partners than contractor-client, says Gregory Anderegg, SC Johnson’s director of global community affairs. “They saw eye-to-eye on design principles,” he says. “About the only thing Hib said ‘no’ to was a pipe organ” proposed for his company’s Administration Building, a project budgeted at $200,000 but built for $900,000.

In the 1940s, Wright’s budget for Johnson’s 15-story Research Tower was $900,000. It ended up costing $3.8 million, but these dramatic price differences weren’t what cracked their bond.

The architect came to Wingspread for an overnight visit years later, and his unilateral decision to replace artwork and move furniture – so the home looked more like what he designed – raised the ire of Irene Purcell, Hib’s third wife. She told Wright to leave and demanded a different house.

“They were both very strong people,” explains stepdaughter Karen Johnson-Boyd, on a Wingspread video. “It was sort of like atomic testing.” Today the 36-acre Wingspread campus is used for conferences and contains the subsequent house, now a lodge for special guests.

The Wasmuth Portfolio remains on display until March 2016. Tours of the SC Johnson Gallery, Fortaleza Hall, Administration Building, Research Tower, Golden Rondelle Theater and Wingspread are free. Reservations are advised. Tour dates and times vary. scjohnson.com/visit, 262-260-2154

The Administration Building, Research Tower and Wingspread are National Historic Landmarks. nps.gov/nhl

What, in addition to Frank Lloyd Wright sites, makes Racine worth a visit? Here are my quick picks.

North Beach, a 50-acre stretch of well-groomed sand that kisses Lake Michigan. Blue Wave certification means it’s kept clean, too. It is staffed with lifeguards during warm weather, and the roomy Kids Cove playground has safe places for children to climb. A walking-biking trail stretches 9.8 miles along the lakeshore.

Racine Zoo, three blocks north of the beach and facing the lake. About 100 animal species live on the 28-acre park, which opened in 1923; newer additions include an emperor tamarin baby born in winter. These little brown monkeys have long white whiskers that resemble a handlebar moustache. racinezoo.org, 262-636-9189

Kewpee Lunch, in an art deco building downtown, with dozens of kewpee dolls under glass inside. The retro burger joint with the how-low-can-you-go counter dining stools began business in the 1920s. It is one of six Kewpees that remain nationwide; the franchise peaked at 200 diners before World War II, long before the birth of McDonald’s. Closed on Sunday. kewpee.com, 262-634-9601

Danish kringle, the official state pastry and made by at least four bakeries here. No city makes more of the buttery, 32-layer, oval-shaped bakery that is filled with fruit, nuts, custard and/or cream cheese. Although the kingpin producer is O&H Danish Bakery (ohdanishbakery.com, 800-709-4009), which has four locations, don’t ignore the excellent quality at smaller shops: Larsen’s Bakery (larsenskringle.com, 262-633-4298), Bendtsen’s Bakery (bendtsensbakery.com, 262-633-0365) and Lehmann’s Bakery (lehmannsbakery.com, 262-632-4636).

Racine Art Museum, home to the nation’s largest contemporary crafts collection. That means artistic expressions involve ceramics, fibers, glass metals or wood. Expect furniture to teapots, Chihuly glass sculptures to wearable art as jewelry. Opening May 24 is “A Whole Other World: Sub-Culture Craft,” which shows what artists inspired by superheroes can do. ramart.org, 262-638-8300

For more ideas about what to do in the area: realracine.com, 262-884-6400.