Despite everything I’m about to say in this post, the free tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed S.C. Johnson Headquarters was fabulous. Magda and I loved the bus ride from Chicago, the special stop at O&H Danish Bakery for sandwiches and kringle, and the tours of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings on the S.C. Johnson campus and in the private Johnson home known as Wingspread. Magda decided her interest in Frank Lloyd Wright’s work was based on determining how Frank’s inherent misanthropy informed his cruel architectural features, an interest I labeled “hate tourism.” I think she’ll talk more about that tomorrow.
I need to pause here and note that indoor photography was prohibited at the S.C. Johnson Headquarters, and we weren’t given a whole lot of time for exterior photography. So a lot of my pictures are from Google Images.
Here’s a wide-angle view of the S.C. Johnson headquarters campus in Racine, Wisconsin.
As that label on the random Internet photo so clearly indicates, these are the buildings on the campus that were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The tall building on the left is the now-defunct research tower, and on the right you see the administration building.
They have a newer building that was not designed by Frank or any of his people, which is called Fortaleza Hall. It was designed to hold a replica of an airplane that Sam Johnson flew down to Fortaleza, Brazil in the 1930s to get wax off the carnauba palms for his floor waxes.
And here’s a selfie of Magda and me outside Fortaleza Hall:
And now I will get to my point.
As I alluded to in my reference to Magda’s “hate tourism,” it was very clear that many features of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs were incredibly unpleasant for the actual human beings who had to inhabit his buildings. For example, the research tower had very narrow spiral staircases, claustrophobic workspaces, and windows you couldn’t actually see through. Everything was designed to make workers feel removed from the outside world, and at the same time give them no privacy from their coworkers. The only place a lab employee could be alone was in the microscopic airplane-sized bathrooms, which, by the way, were all men’s rooms.
The administration building didn’t look much more pleasant to work in. The first floor of the building was called The Great Workroom, and was an open-plan office (blech) that was once largely occupied by female secretaries sitting at rows and rows of special Frank Lloyd Wright-designed desks. And although the ceiling was made of glass tubing designed to let in natural light, there were no actual windows in the building that employees could look through.
Frank even designed special desk chairs, which looked really neat but were very easy to fall out of if you crossed your legs. Also the chair backs were stiff to allow for absolutely zero leaning. (I sat in one. It was not your ergonomic desk chair of today. The stiffness was actually quite a shock.) The tour guide told us that at one point point an S.C. Johnson executive complained to Frank Lloyd Wright that employees kept falling out of their chairs, and Frank’s response was that the employees just didn’t know how to sit properly.
So I got to thinking that employees working in Frank’s world had to endure a lot of unpleasantries. Then I got to thinking, What would it be like to work in such an awful space and be depressed?
Now, let me clarify that my use of the term awful space includes both actual, physical space, as well as a point in time. The S.C. Johnson administration building opened in 1939, and the research tower opened in 1950. So I’m thinking specifically of employees in the 40s and 50s here.
It was a time when you weren’t allowed to admit you were depressed. And imagine if you were a young woman, living in the sometimes brutal climate of Racine, Wisconsin, coming to work every day as a secretary for the S.C. Johnson Company. You’re dressed in the confining wardrobe of a girdle, pencil skirt, belt, pantyhose, and high heels, and forced to sit bolt upright in an uncomfortable and tippy chair. You never get any privacy. And you’re going through a horribly dark depression, but you can’t do anything except soldier on, show up to work, fake a smile, and type up memos all day like the hundreds of other women sitting all around you. You would just have to suffer in silence, being miserable every single day of your life and wondering how you’d make it through.
Someone in this picture was suffering from depression.
Or imagine if you’re working in the laboratory, unable to see outside at all, elbow-to-elbow with every other employee, and never getting a moment’s peace because of the strange acoustics of the building. Maybe you’re depressed and just can’t see the point of life, and being confined to an isolated two-foot-by-two-foot workspace with a bunch of beakers isn’t exactly lifting your spirits.
While I was thinking about how awful depression sufferers of previous generations had it, my thoughts drifted to the people of those generations who consumed the S.C. Johnson products. These were largely housewives, given few choices in life, feeling trapped at home and forced by advertising to believe that all your problems would be solved if you just had shinier floors in your home.
My point is this: While we seldom think of gratitude when it comes to depression, I myself am grateful that I suffer from depression today instead of 60 or 70 years ago. Today we have better medications to treat depression. Today doctors and your more enlightened friends know that depression is an actual medical condition with an actual physiological cause, rather than a sign of weakness. Today you may feel like you’re always falling out of your metaphorical tippy chair, but at least the world doesn’t tell you it’s because of your poor sitting skills.
And yes, of course we still have a long way to go. There is still a stigma attached to mental illness that prevents many people from seeking help. Antidepressant medications still have a lot of room for improvement. Most of us feel some level of shame about being depressed, no matter how many times somebody tells you that being depressed is no different from being diabetic. All of us know that even though there’s a road out, it’s a long and steep one with a lot of detours.
It would be nice if someday people with depression could just tell anybody who’s interested about their mental health conditions. Someday maybe you can “call in depressed” to work and have your co-workers understand. Someday maybe antidepressants will be available over-the-counter, and they’ll be fast-acting and long-lasting.
But for today, I’m grateful I can at least tell somebody I’m depressed. I’m grateful that I’m being treated with non-barbaric medical interventions that are covered by insurance. I’m grateful that the medical professionals who dispense these treatments do so without being condescending, and that the friends who offer support tell me I’m strong instead of weak.
Because today you may be in a deep, dark hole, but at least the modern world offers windows to help you see a way out of it.