The Bachman Wilson House will leave New Jersey for higher and drier ground on the Crystal Bridges campus in Arkansas.
When Frank Lloyd Wright designed a house alongside the Millstone River in Somerset County, N.J., he couldn’t have predicted that flooding would cause it to be shipped 1,300 miles away. Neither did homeowners Lawrence and Sharon Tarantino. But after years of floods, the Tarantinos—architects and co-founders of Tarantino Studio, a Millstone, N.J.-based firm specializing in the restoration of Wright buildings—decided to put their house on the market for $1.5 million.
“We couldn’t find any other solution. We couldn’t mitigate it in any other way, because of the soils here, the EPA regulations prevented us from doing anything else with the soils, and the design of the house didn’t lend itself to raising it up,” says Lawrence Tarantino, AIA.
In January, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art acquired the Bachman Wilson House from the Tarantinos for its Bentonville, Ark.-campus. This week, the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas announced a partnership with Crystal Bridges to develop a year-long program through which Fay Jones students and faculty will create an architectural interpretation pavilion for the Bachman Wilson House.
With a dramatic open floor plan, mahogany-framed glazed panels, and a deliberate use of natural elements, the 1954 Bachman Wilson House is a stellar example from Wright’s Usonian period—albeit one that will now appear outside its native context. Tarantino says that his interest in Frank Lloyd Wright began very early in my childhood and drove him to study architecture. “After we had the opportunity to purchase the house, I became more involved in his life and his work—mostly the Usonian period,” says Lawrence Tarantino, AIA.
When the Tarantinos bought the house in 1988, there had only been one recorded flood. After that flood, “the house had never been properly restored … So when we purchased the house, we restored it. Then in 1999, Hurricane Floyd put five and a half feet of water on the main floor. We thought that was a one-time event,” Tarantino says.
After Floyd, there were floods in 2007, 2010, and the worst of them all—Hurricane Irene in 2011.
“Whenever we made restorations, we always referred back to the original drawings which we obtained from the original owner, Abe Wilson,” Tarantino says. The couple had researched and located Wilson, who became involved in the restoration process.
In 2011, the Tarantinos contacted the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, a Chicago-based organization that presented the Tarantinos with the Spirit Award in 2008 for their restorations of the house, asking the organization to look at the flood data. “We reluctantly came to the same conclusion as they came to—relocation,” says Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy executive director Janet Halstead. “[The Tarantinos] thought this would be a relocation that wouldn’t be so far away. But as it turns out, I think it found a very good home.”
According to the Building Conservancy, about 20 percent of Wright’s built works have been destroyed due to fire, neglect, or development. This is not the first time a Wright house has been damaged due to consistent flooding: The Alvin Miller Usonian House in Iowa, currently on the market for $275,000, also incurred damage from flooding.
“Obviously, in a perfect world, you would allow it to stay where it is, but clearly, if it does that, it won’t last much longer,” says,” says Arkansas architect Marlon Blackwell, FAIA. “One more Sandy and it’s gone.”
When asked if the Bachman Wilson House will lose any value in preserving Wright’s legacy by relocating to a new region, Blackwell says “I think if that were the case, I think the Building Conservancy would’ve raised objections. They’re actually supportive of it. The house is in danger. It flooded multiple times. I think it needed help. This way, it becomes accessible to the public at large so they can see how these principles are put into purpose. You can experience it first-hand without just looking at it in a book. It’s part of the mission of the museum itself to introduce the significance of American art and architecture to the largest audience it can.”
In the past, with sufficient advance notice for extreme weather conditions, the Tarantinos would disassemble and remove furniture, cabinets, and significant items out of the house. “The 10-foot French doors have to be opened up and the water has to be allowed in, which is the heart-breaking part, to maintain equilibrium in the living room,” Tarantino says.
The sale of the house—a price that Crystal Bridges will not disclose—includes the furniture pieces designed by Wright. “It’s part of the composition of his work. It creates the completeness of the design concept and they’re instrumental in demonstrating the craft that existed in the period. A lot of the furniture involved simple designs that were made from parts left over in the house, like the plywood,” Tarantino says.
Blackwell says that the work of architect E. Fay Jones—the Arkansas native and Wright protégé for whom the University of Arkansas’s school of architecture is named—will provide context for the Usonian house in the Natural State. One can also see the influence of Wright and Jones on the grounds of Crystal Bridges itself: Moshe Safdie, the architect who designed the museum, incorporated Wright’s Usonian principles, such as the use of light and natural materials in building the museum’s campus.
During the spring and summer of this year, Arkansas assistant professor of architecture Santiago Perez and visiting assistant professor of architecture Angela Carpenter will lead the first and second phases of the project in a Design-Fabrication Studio, which involves building an enclosed structure from which students will be able to watch the reconstruction of the Bachman Wilson House. Once the process is complete, the structure will be used by the museum as an architectural interpretation center for visitors to learn more about the house.
In the fall semester, Fay Jones students will analyze and document the reconstruction of the house for a listing in the Historic American Buildings Survey, with the goal of producing exhibition quality drawings, models, and diagrams of the house, as well as a narrative that puts the Bachman Wilson House in the context of American art and architectural history.
Now, the Tarantinos are in the process of disassembling the house for its move down south—a move that has been planned for nearly two years with a team of specialists. Reconstruction will begin in the spring and will take approximately 15 months.