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Rescuing Wright: New Jersey’s Bachman Wilson House Moves to Crystal Bridges

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Living Room of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman Wilson House
Tarantino Studio ©2013, Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum

A little known architectural gem in my home state, New Jersey, which I once visited and greatly admired (on a Wright-in-New Jersey bus tour), is about to be taken apart and transported to Bentonville, AR, along with the furniture and fixtures designed for it.

I’m very glad this is happening.

Gratitude is owned to the Crystal Bridges Museum for saving the 1954 Bachman Wilson House in Millstone—a millstone around the necks of its owners, architect Lawrence Tarantino and Sharon Tarantino, who bought it in 1988 and did much to restore and preserve it.

They ultimately realized that “flooding on the property” was “increasing both in intensity and frequency, threatening the house itself and its viability as a residence,” according to Crystal Bridges’ announcement today of its acquisition. “The owners decided to put the house on the market in 2012. The sale, however, was conditional upon moving the house to a suitable natural site.”

To give you an idea of what the owners were up against, here’s an image of what the property looked like after Hurricane Irene in 2011:

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When I visited this Usonian (a Wright home commissioned by a moderate-income family), its floor-to-ceiling doors—opening upon an enticing terrace, with a lush landscape just beyond (as seen in image at the top)—brought to mind a more famous Usonian: Wright’s Kentuck Knob, a stone’s throw from the iconic Fallingwater (whose restoration I wrote about for the Wall Street Journal in 2003). You can see Kentuck Knob’s doors opening onto its terrace, here.

Frank Lloyd Wright residences are like site-specific art: They’re so closely intertwined with their intended settings that they lose part of their magic if they are uprooted. But when the structural integrity or the very existence of a Wright house is endangered, even the staunchest preservationists—including the Frank Lloyd Wright Conservancy—endorse moving it over losing it.

Here are excerpts from the Conservancy’s statement about this fortunate development:

The Conservancy…has…taken the consistent position that a Wright building should remain on its original site; the only reason to move it would be to save it from destruction and such a step should be taken only as a last resort….Facing a difficult dilemma after upstream construction and water “management” projects contributed to a repeated untenable flood hazard for their property…, the Tarantinos reluctantly concluded that the house required relocation and consulted the Conservancy.

After intensive study and discussion, the board acted to support…the concept of moving the Bachman Wilson House in order to save it….

Crystal Bridges plans to make the house “available for study as well as for certain limited programming and tours” and anticipates developing programs in collaboration with the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas.

Alice Walton, founder and funder of Crystal Bridges, has a personal affinity for Wright by association: She is an admirer of the late Arkansas architect E. Fay Jones, a Wright apprentice, who designed the house that she grew up in (and still returns to) in Bentonville. (You can get a look at her Wrightean house in the video at the end of this CultureGrrl post, beginning at 7:10 into the clip).

The architect tapped by Walton to design Crystal Bridges, Moshe Safdie, is also an admirer of Jones. The museum’s executive director, Rod Bigelow, sought to draw a connection between Wright’s and Safdie’s vision:

Usonian homes made use of natural materials and deliberately used natural settings and sunlight as architectural elements and for passive solar heating. The use of light and natural materials is a prominent design feature of Crystal Bridges’ own architecture as well.

According to Crystal Bridges’ announcement:

The Bachman Wilson House will be sited a short distance from the museum along its 3.5 miles of trails, with views overlooking the native woodland setting as well as Crystal Spring, the natural spring from which the museum takes its name.

Site preparation will begin this spring, with reconstruction to follow toward a goal of completion in early 2015.

Here are two more views of the house—the shielded front entrance…

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Tarantino Studio ©2013, Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum

… and the rear exterior:

Tarantino Studio ©2013, Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum

Tarantino Studio ©2013, Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum

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