Page C1.2 . 07 December 2011                     
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The Story of Saarinen's John Deere Headquarters


But Henry Dreyfuss, the longstanding product design consultant who had modernized the look of the Deere & Company products, most notably the streamlined tractor of 1938, guided Hewitt to two recent projects Dreyfuss considered "superb models to emulate": the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Auditorium and the General Motors Technical Center, both designed by Eero Saarinen.

As Hewitt recounted in his 1964 inaugural speech: "Henry said if we were interested in an architect whose work will last and still be excellent 25 or 50 years from now, we should seriously consider Eero Saarinen."

Hewitt visited both projects, meeting Saarinen at the Technical Center. As Hewitt described it, "Then and there I decided Eero Saarinen was the man for the job."

Hewitt and Saarinen convened in Moline in August 1956 to visit and discuss possible sites. Eventually, searching beyond the city limits, they found a potential site south of East Moline: bluffs above the Rock River valley extending down through a ravine to level agricultural fields.

Comprising four farms totaling 720 acres (290 hectares), the site contained some existing trees and views of the valley that promised the kind of elegance Hewitt was looking for. To verify the site's potential, Hewitt and Saarinen boarded a utility repair lift to better see what the view might look like from the new building's upper floors.

The message of the glinting Technical Center, assimilated by both Hewitt and Saarinen, was the summary, unfettered totality of its environment and a site that did not merely contain buildings but performed in dynamic equivalency with them.

The Deere & Company corporate board did not match Hewitt's enthusiasm for a new building, resisting abandonment of the company's traditional residence and wary of appearing pretentious to their farmer customers. But with "his personal credibility on the line," Hewitt sold the idea of the building, the site, and the architect to his cautious board.

In August 1957, Hewitt wrote to Saarinen "to set down a few fundamental ideas that may be helpful to you in creating a new headquarters for Deere & Company." Hewitt emphasized his lack of preconceptions about what the design of the building should be, which he saw as Saarinen's responsibility, and then stated:

The men who built this company and caused it to grow and flourish were men of strength — rugged honest, close to the soil. Since the company's early days, quality of product and integrity in relationships with farmers, dealers, suppliers, and the public in general have been Deere's guiding factors.

In thinking of our traditions and our future, and in thinking of the people who will work in or visit our new headquarters, I believe it should be thoroughly modern in concept, but at the same time, be down to earth and rugged.

Saarinen's first inspiration was to raise a "rugged" concrete building: a pyramid inverted, on the highest bluff overlooking the valley floor. According to Saarinen's associate Paul Kennon, Saarinen returned to his office and began work on a steel-frame building lower down in the valley "that was absolutely sympathetic to the trees." To Saarinen "the broad ravines seemed the finest, most pleasant, and most human site" for the building.

Three weeks after the aborted inverted pyramid, Saarinen requested that Hewitt visit his office in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. As Hewitt remembered it in 1977, Saarinen showed him a model of the new scheme "complete with land contours, trees, shrubs and a pond."

The main steel-frame administration building straddled the valley floor facing the flat farm fields and the Rock River valley. A fourth-floor bridge connected it to the product display building extending up the valley's side; a corresponding extension on the opposite side of the valley accommodated future building expansion.

Hewitt, satisfied that it met the company's program, gave the go-ahead to develop the design.

Saarinen's next move was to earn him an assured place in the history of 20th-century architecture, a clearly stated goal on his part. Instead of the lustrous metal that he used in other buildings before and after, Saarinen trussed the edifice in the obtrusively industrial Cor-Ten steel, which rusts to a protective finish. Saarinen described his decision:

Deere & Company is a secure, well-established, successful farm machinery company, proud of its Midwestern farm-belt location. Farm machinery is not slick, shiny metal but forged iron and steel in big, forceful, functional shapes. The proper character for the headquarters' architecture should likewise not be slick, precise glittering glass and spindly metal building, but a building which is bold and direct, using metal in a strong, basic way.

Having decided to use steel, we wanted to make a steel building that really was a steel building (most so-called steel buildings seem to me to be more glass buildings than steel buildings, really not one thing or the other). We sought an appropriate material — economical, maintenance free, bold in character, dark in color.

After presenting the preliminary design in June 1958, Saarinen engaged Hideo Sasaki to be the project's landscape architect. Once involved, Sasaki confirmed Saarinen's imaginative leap that the building should straddle the valley.   >>>

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This article is excerpted from Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes by Louise A. Mozingo, copyright © 2011, with permission of the publisher, the MIT Press.



ArchWeek Image

The entry view of the Deere & Company World Headquarters, designed by Eero Saarinen, presents a view of the main administration building from across one of the site's ponds.
Photo: Louise A. Mozingo Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

On the drive to the Deere & Company Headquarters, the roadway grading, planting, and shape were designed precisely to maximize the aesthetic effect of the site's landscape.
Photo: Louise A. Mozingo Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Deere & Company Headquarters site plan drawing.
Image: Courtesy MIT Press Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Taken relatively soon after the Deere & Company Headquarters was completed, this aerial photo shows the careful relationship of roadways, landscape, and building. The landscape architect was Hideo Sasaki. Image does not appear in book.
Photo: Courtesy Deere & Company Extra Large Image

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Including the semi-subterranean executive dining room level, the main Deere & Company administration building occupies eight floors. Image does not appear in book.
Photo: Courtesy Deere & Company Extra Large Image

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A second-floor porch runs along the western side of the main Deere & Company administration building. Image does not appear in book.
Photo: Courtesy Deere & Company Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

A skybridge connects the administration building to the product display building to the east. Image does not appear in book.
Photo: Courtesy Deere & Company Extra Large Image

ArchWeek Image

Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes by Louise A. Mozingo.
Image: MIT Press Extra Large Image


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