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Art, nature work at Deere center

Dispatch/Argus Photo By Chuck Thomas

Sturdier plants have replaced the bamboo and other exotic plants originally planted in the atrium of the West Office Building at the Deere Administrative Center. The atrium provides a natural buffer between work areas in the three-story office wing and a peaceful place for workers to relax, eat lunch and enjoy a bit of nature.

MOLINE -- The award-winning Deere Administrative Center was designed with the company's heritage, products and future in mind.

Host to 40,000 to 50,000 visitors a year, the center has a main office building, product-display pavilion and 400-seat auditorium. A west office addition was built in 1978.

The main building is situated over a ravine in a natural setting of 1,400 acres of trees native to Illinois, wildlife, and two small lakes that bring nature and the outdoors to the 1,400 workers inside.

World-renowned architect Eero Saarinen, who designed Deere & Co.'s corporate headquarters, said he tried to capture the character of the John Deere products, the company and its customers, and the friendly, informal attitude of its personnel into the buildings' design.

``We wanted the buildings to be functional, simple, handsome, enduring, without chromium doodads or showiness,'' he once said. ``We tried to use steel to express strength. No brashly modern or pretentious buildings would have been right.''

Mr. Saarinen, also known for designing the St. Louis Arch, was 51 when he died a week after Deere's groundbreaking in 1961.

Former Deere chairman William A. Hewitt said he believed the headquarters should have a modern concept but be down-to-earth and rugged.

A special corrosion-resistant unpainted steel was used for the exterior and on louvers to shade the windows from the sun on each floor. The steel formed its own protective coating as it weathered and took on the rich, dark color of newly plowed Midwestern soil.

The 300,000-square-foot main building sits across a ravine facing south. Two lakes in front enhance its beauty. The smaller pond, with an island, is home to Japanese koi fish, which hibernate on the bottom during the winter. Runoff from the roof feeds the pond.

The larger lake cools the water for the building's air-conditioning system and is home to nine swans and a flock of Canada geese.

The company maintains a traditional Japanese garden -- with five large stones from Kyoto as its focal point -- on the northwest side of the main building.

Most of the work areas are near the window walls of the building to provide workers with a view of nature -- the lakes to the south or woods to the north and west. Movable steel partitions divide the floor areas for maximum efficiency and scenery.

Telephone cables and other electrical wiring are concealed in an enclosed gutter running through the center of the main hallway the length of the building.

Although often reported as a seven-story building, the Administrative Center actually has nine floors. The upper five house general staff, while the executive offices and board of directors' rooms are on the second floor, and cafeterias are on the first floor. The nurses' office and other maintenance areas are on two lower levels.

A glass-enclosed bridge connects the main building at its fourth-floor level. A security system installed in March 1997 is designed to contain any unwanted guests on the bridge, far from private offices.

The three-level west office building has a gambrel roof for a skylight over an expansive atrium, creating a buffer between the work areas, Craig Mack, Deere's manager for general office facilities, said. About 600 people work in the west office building, but the work environment has a quiet feeling, he said.

The atrium's only disadvantage is the higher humidity in the building, which tends to affect workers' hairstyles, Mr. Mack said. No one is allowed to bring live plants into the west wing for fear of infecting the atrium's plants with unwanted insects.

Instead of using pesticides and chemicals, the gardeners introduce hundreds of mealy bugs each month to eat the aphids on the plants, Mr. Mack said.

The atrium originally was designed to showcase exotic and flowering plants and a stand of bamboo trees. After years of trial and error, however, the exotic varieties have given way to hardier survivors, Mr. Mack said. Rufus palms replaced the bamboos. Flowering plants are brought in for a dash of color.

``We try to maintain the integrity of the original design, but we adjust nature to adapt to the environment,'' horticulturist John Hansen said. ``It's a beautiful environment.''

Two full-time gardeners grow the plants in a greenhouse on the company grounds. Large granite boulders from Missouri and hoyas provide much of the ground cover. A staff of 12 cares for the atrium and the grounds of all the John Deere buildings in the Quad-Cities. Another 38 workers maintain, wire and repair the Administrative Center.

Interior walls of the Deere buildings are like mini art galleries, covered with prints, paintings, tapestries, and sculpture from artists in countries where Deere does business, Mr. Mack said. Chinese silks and 600-year-old wooden doors from Japan, antique copper deer, and one-of-a-kind French tapestries reflect nature, farming and other Deere businesses.

Mr. Hewitt and his late wife, Patricia Wiman Hewitt, selected most of the pieces.

Larry Jonson, Deere's art curator, rotates the diverse collections to expose Deere's employees and their guests to many styles and varieties of contemporary and traditional art, Mr. Mack said.

The most famous piece in the collection is Grant Wood's painting ``Fall Plowing.'' Prints by 20th-century masters Joan Miro, Marc Chagall and Alexander Calder, ``Hills Arches,'' a rare sculpture by British artist Henry Moore, and ``Cybele,'' a Michel Tourliere wool tapestry, are among the priceless pieces.

Although much of Deere's artwork is for the eyes of employees and their guests, some original sketches by Grant Wood on brown butcher paper are displayed in the foyer of the company auditorium.

Another public piece is the three-dimensional Alexander Girard mural of John Deere collectibles and early agriculture memorabilia from 1837 to 1918, which decorates the display floor.

The mural's significance was not lost on Mr. Hewitt. He called it ``a challenging reminder to all who design and make things bearing the John Deere name, that in this pavilion their work will be measured against a background embodying respect for the integrity of the past.''

The Deere Administrative Center was one of Saarinen's last designs and has since won numerous national design awards.

During seven years of planning, the architect never lost focus on the importance of his design. He expected the people who work there to give the building life, color and warmth, while the steel and glass was expected to inspire them and allow imagination.

``The character of the interiors of the Deere buildings should be the same as the character of the company and the character of the architecture,'' Mr. Saarinen wrote. ``They should be strong and masculine, but also warm and friendly.''

Facts on the Deere Administrative Center

-- One of the last designs by the late Eero Saarinen.

-- Completed in 1964, the main office building is built with a special corrosion-resistant unpainted steel to express strength.

-- Situated on a 1,400-acre site overlooking the Rock River valley.

-- Constructed across a wooded ravine with two lakes in front.

-- Consists of a main, nine-story office building, product display building and a 400-seat auditorium.

-- A west office addition with an atrium was added in 1978.

-- Recipient of numerous design awards for excellence in architecture.

-- Host to 50,000 visitors a year.

Source: Deere & Co.

-- By Rita Pearson (February 2, 1998)

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