When former Deere & Co. Chairman William Hewitt envisioned a new administrative center more than a half century ago, he wanted a building that not only would honor the farm equipment maker's sturdy Midwestern roots but set the tone for the global company that Deere would evolve into.
This month, employees at what now is called John Deere World Headquarters in Moline, observe the 50th anniversary of the acclaimed architectural gem. Like the company itself, the building has stood the test of time and even some reinventions of space.
''We're very fortunate, this building is very adaptable to a change of the times," said Craig Mack, Deere's manager of general office facilities.
While the Cor-Ten steel building's exterior has changed very little in its five decades, its interior has had to accommodate the shifts in office functions and culture. Mack recalled how the company's computer once filled the entire ground floor in the East Office building, but today, updated infrastructure must power a computer on every desk. In 1964, the idea of teleconferencing was science fiction lore. But today, Deere employees around the globe meet face-to-face in a Telepresence Room in the West Office building.
Mack, who in 1979 joined Deere mid-career as an architect in the engineering department, sees his role as "maintaining the stewardship of the building'' while overseeing necessary modernizations.
''For the Quad-Cities, this was quite a facility 50 years ago," he said during a recent tour.
In the past six to seven years, the three-building complex has undergone a major overhaul with new energy-efficient windows, carpeting, LED lighting, Wi-Fi capabilities throughout, a telephone system upgrade and reconfigured work spaces.
"We're trying to be as green as we can be but still keep the image of the building," Mack said.
Under construction from 1961 to 1964, the headquarters was built to accommodate the company's growth and unite 900 employees from six separate Deere locations under a single roof. The staff and 250 vanloads of supplies and files moved in on April 17, 1964, but the official grand opening was held June 4-5 of that year.
With 400 guests on hand at the celebration, Deere unveiled the multi-million-dollar center. The event was described as "the greatest gathering of top-flight business personnel in Quad-City history," according to the Davenport Times-Democrat, a predecessor of the Quad-City Times.
The guest list included Charles Percy, then Bell & Howell board chairman and future U.S. senator from Illinois; David Rockefeller, president of Manhattan Bank; Gabriel Hauge, former economic adviser to President Dwight Eisenhower; and Aline Saarinen, art-critic widow of famed architect Eero Saarinen, who designed the new headquarters before his death. Hewitt's wife, Patricia, and their 6-year-old son, Alexander, steered her team of Arabian horses to pull an ancient plow at the site, the newspaper reported.
"Bill Hewitt saw the vision in the 1950s that this was going to be an international company," Mack said. "He had the fore-vision to know the international market would be the future."
The Deere Administrative Center — as it originally was known — housed the East Office Building and the connecting display floor and auditorium. The building replaced Deere's previous headquarters, on the site of what now is the iWireless Center. The West Office Building, which contains a plant-filled atrium, rounded out the headquarters in 1978.
Hewitt, who was Deere's sixth president and the last member of the Deere family at the helm (his wife, Patricia Deere Wiman, was John Deere's great-great granddaughter), dismissed suggestions that Deere move headquarters to another city.
According to the company, Hewitt was pressured in the 1950s to relocate operations to Chicago, New York or San Francisco. Instead, he led Deere to build a new and distinctive building in its hometown of Moline, taking a personal interest in the building that would become part of his legacy.
Hewitt choose Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen to design the building. At the time, Saarinen also was working on projects such as the main terminal of Dulles International Airport and the St. Louis' Gateway Arch. Sadly, Saarinen died Sept. 1, 1961 — four days after the construction contract for the administrative center was signed with Indianapolis-based Huber, Hunt & Nichols.
His colleagues Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo stepped in to see the project through completion. Construction began in September 1961.
Roche, who turned 92 on Saturday, remains the principal partner — working every day — in the Hamden, Conn., architecture firm that now is known as Kevin Roche, John Dinkeloo and Associates LLC, or KRJDA. In a telephone interview last week, Roche said the Deere headquarters still ranks ''way up on the top" of his list of favorite projects. "And I think it's a beautiful building, too."
"Bill Hewitt was a wonderful man," Roche recalled. "He knew every detail of the building."
While Saarinen had completed the basic design before his death, Roche said "there is a lot of work after the basic design, and we subsequently did the West Office Building (which opened in 1978)." Saarinen had planned for that third building in his original design.
Roche also designed the former John Deere Insurance headquarters on the campus.
"I thought it was very special,'' he said, adding he was disappointed it was renovated in 2011 to look like the rest of the campus. "I wanted to make it different since it was celebrating the insurance aspect."
Asked to describe Hewitt, Roche said, "He was absolutely great. First of all, he was very intelligent ... a very smart business man. And you could communicate with him. He was very easy to work with."
During a tribute to Hewitt after his death on May 16, 1998, then Deere Chairman and CEO Hans Becherer recalled how Hewitt and Saarinen personally explored the oaks, streams and rolling hills of the 780-acre farm overlooking the Rock River valley in south Moline. He described how the pair had used a truck with a 35-foot lift to survey the site and envision what the new headquarters could become.
"In truth, this structure tells us about the timelessness of Bill Hewitt," Becherer told the audience.
Deere eventually purchased four farms, encompassing 1,200 acres, located on an unpaved portion of Coaltown Road to build the new administrative center.
The current building, which has now been home to generations of Deere employees, was not Saarinen's initial design. The company rejected the first design — an inverted pyramid situated atop a hill, in part because it did not include a display floor or auditorium, and it did not fit the landscape.
Board members also feared that such grandiose plans might alienate the agricultural customer base. But Hewitt encouraged the board to look beyond the present-day company and envision what it would be in the future. With his convincing, the board approved plans in 1957, and Saarinen was engaged as the project's architect.
Described as characteristics of Expressionism and International Style, the new design called for the administrative center to appear to emerge as part of the landscape.
Because he was intimately familiar with the grounds, Saarinen's design carefully considered the giant oak trees that covered the site and preserved as many as possible during construction.
The building also was designed so that as many employees as possible would have an outside view from their workspace. To accommodate this, private offices were placed in the center of the building with the general work areas on the building's perimeter.
Roche, who had been involved in the project before Saarinen's death, said the building design was unusual in its day for the use of Cor-Ten steel and the arrangement of the buildings. Another new concept, he said, was the idea of achieving energy reduction by designing sunshades into the building over the windows. Extending out six feet from the building, they can be used to stand on to wash the windows.
"This was the first time Cor-Ten steel was used in a building," he said. "In a way it was a test, somewhat of an experiment."
He added that the architects believed the steel was appropriate for Deere because it represented durability and strength just like the farm equipment Deere was producing.
The steel requires no paint and weathers so that it creates its own protective rust-colored coating as it ages.
"If we had used steel and paint, paint peels off and you would have to repaint, and then you're looking at a painted building not a steel building," Roche said.
Originally a very red steel, Mack said, the steel will turn brown with pollution. In this climate, ''it's taking longer to turn brown." The red color has helped earn the headquarters the Rusty Palace nickname, a name Mack dismisses.
Like an art museum
According to Mack, Hewitt took as much interest in the interior — acquiring artwork of different mediums from around the world.
"He wanted this to be like an art museum," he said. "The works relate to agriculture and represent the countries we do business in."
Hewitt's legacy lives with artwork throughout each building, from Grant Wood sketches in the auditorium to Alexander Girard's "Refections of an Era," a three-dimensional piece located near the equipment display floor, and Henry Moore's sculpture "Hill Arches." The sculpture, located by the lakes in front, was delivered by helicopter.
Mack also recalled how Deere used to hold product introductions in the company auditorium with the aid of a 32-foot revolving stage that still works today. He said Hewitt also used the stage to bring in stars of the day, such as Pearl Bailey and Glen Campbell, for concerts.
"Bill Hewitt wanted us to have culture. He wanted to show how architecture and art should blend together," he said. "I think we've accomplished that well."