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Bachman Wilson House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Image copyright Tarantino Studio; courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.
Bachman Wilson House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Image copyright Tarantino Studio; courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

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Frank Lloyd Wright House Is Rebuilt Anew, Piece by Piece, in Arkansas

In Bentonville, Arkansas, a house that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for a New Jersey couple more than 60 years ago has been painstakingly reassembled, board by board and pane by pane, overlooking the clear waters of the Crystal Spring. When it opens to the public next month on the lushly wooded 120-acre campus of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, it will be the first Wright house in Arkansas—a delicately preserved later example of the so-called Usonian homes that the architect conceived as models for affordable middle-class living.

How the house came to be in the Ozarks of northwestern Arkansas, some 1,200 miles from where it was first built, is a story that touches on the unforgiving potency of Mother Nature, a couple's untiring effort to restore and preserve an unsung architectural gem, and the ambitions of the Walmart heiress Alice Walton, who founded Crystal Bridges in 2011 with an eye toward establishing it as a destination for fans of American art and architecture.

The new foundation of the Bachman Wilson House.

In 1954, Abraham Wilson and Gloria Bachman called on Wright in his suite in New York's Plaza Hotel, his home base while he was working on the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and asked him to design a house for a 125-by-650-foot lot that they had purchased by a tributary of the Raritan River in Millstone, New Jersey. The house would be a tribute of sorts to Bachman's brother Marvin, who had studied under Wright at Taliesin West, the architect's home and studio in Scottsdale, Arizona. Marvin was serving as an apprentice on Wright's Seamour Shavin House in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when he was killed in a car accident in 1951.

Completed in 1956, three years before Wright's death at age 91, the three-bedroom, 1,700-square-foot Bachman Wilson House represented a culmination of the architectural principles he had embraced over his career, and it featured several hallmarks of his Usonian design. A concrete-block masonry wall ensured privacy from the street, and a floor-to-ceiling expanse of glass on the back, including sets of 16-foot-tall French doors, offered a view from a grand living room to the woods and the Millstone River below. It had a second story—rare for a Usonian house—featuring a cantilevered balcony clad in Philippine mahogany.

Photo taken from video of the home's deconstruction. Image copyright Jon Roemer, courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

Wilson and Bachman lived in the house together until they separated in 1963, and Bachman lived there with their daughter until 1968. Two decades later, after the ownership of the house had changed hands twice, Lawrence Tarantino, an architect, and his wife Sharon, a designer, bought it from a Rutgers professor who they said hadn't invested much in its maintenance. After a long period of benign neglect and a flood sometime in the 1970s, "the house wasn't in great shape," Lawrence Tarantino says.

"As soon as we purchased the house we sought out Abe Wilson and found that he didn't live too far away," Lawrence Tarantino recalls. "So he became a valuable source for us and a consultant on putting the house back to its original condition." Armed with Wilson's counsel and a set of his original blueprints, the Tarantinos set about meticulously restoring the house, a years-long process that involved stripping thick layers of paint that had been applied to the mahogany surfaces over the decades, and delicately reviving some of the finer details of Wright's custom furniture.

Photo taken from video of the home's deconstruction. Image copyright Jon Roemer, courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

The first real sign of trouble came in 1999, when flooding from Hurricane Floyd virtually destroyed the kitchen. The Tarantinos responded by devising modular wooden cabinets that they could slide out from beneath the countertops and move out of the room whenever the Millstone threatened to overspill its banks. This worked well enough, but as flooding started to become a more frequent threat—and particularly after Hurricane Irene inundated the house with nearly six feet of water in August 2011—the Tarantinos made the difficult decision to sell the house, with the stipulation that it be dismantled, moved, and rebuilt at a suitable site out of harm's way.

"We'd contemplated it for quite a long time," Lawrence says. "I think when the flooding got so repetitive where it was two, three years in a row, we just threw our hands up. We realized that we can't be doing this anymore and no one else would want to be doing this except us, and it was futile to expect this house to survive this kind of situation. We had lived here for 25 years; we'd enjoyed it and appreciated it, and we knew it was time for us to make a decision."

Photo taken from video of the home's deconstruction. Image copyright Jon Roemer, courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

The Tarantinos took their idea to the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, which generally opposes moving Wright structures from their original locations. "Normally the preservation practice does not entail moving a property; it's something of a last resort, and if demolition is imminent or if there's no way around it, that's one factor," said Richard Longstreth, the conservancy's president as well as the director of historic preservation and a professor of American studies at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The flooding made the last resort option conceivable. "I think it's really taken its toll on the fabric of the house and it wouldn't really be saleable under the circumstances."

The Tarantinos first tried to find a new site for the house in New Jersey, which is home to just three other Wright houses. When that proved a dead end, they expanded their search to Sagaponack, New York, a community in the Hamptons that has become a modernist enclave; the Midwest; and as far afield as Fiesole, Italy, near Florence, where Wright lived briefly in 1910. Discussions with an Italian architect who had organized an exhibition to mark the 100th anniversary of Wright's stay in Fiesole became serious but ultimately fell apart under the weight of the expense and the logistical hurdles of shipping the house across the Atlantic Ocean. The Tarantinos were starting to run out of time and options.

Photo taken from video of the home's deconstruction. Image copyright Jon Roemer, courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

And then one Sunday morning—Sharon still remembers the date: November 6, 2011—the Tarantinos happened to catch a report on "CBS Sunday Morning" about Crystal Bridges, the museum that Alice Walton built on a wooded campus in the Ozarks as a showcase for the collection of American art she had amassed, covering the Colonial era to the present. The 201,000-square-foot building—featuring a pair of galleries with soaring Arkansas pine ceilings that span a pond—was designed by the Boston architect Moshe Safdie, the onetime Louis Kahn apprentice who is best known for Habitat 67, the modular concrete apartment complex that he created for Expo 67 in Montreal. Part of the CBS segment was filmed at Walton's childhood home, a midcentury modern structure adjacent to Crystal Bridges that was designed by Fay Jones, one of Wright's most celebrated pupils.

"The fact that the site was so wooded and natural," Sharon says, "and the fact that Fay Jones was such an important apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright—it just seemed like all the dots were being connected. The stars aligned. And that's when we decided this was a possibility for a site."

Photo taken from video of the home's deconstruction. Image copyright Jon Roemer, courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

Getting their proposal to the right person at Crystal Bridges proved tricky at first. "We tried different angles," Lawrence says, "and eventually what Sharon was saying about Fay Jones—someone recognized the connection and the link that we had recognized, and then we suddenly got a call that Alice Walton wanted to visit us."

The Tarantinos followed Walton's visit—she was accompanied by Crystal Bridges' president at the time, Don Bacigalupi—with a trip to Bentonville, after which Scott Eccleston, the museum's director of operations, traveled to Millstone. "Crystal Bridges is about the intersection of art and nature, and architecture is a key component of that," Eccleston says. "Once we felt that this would continue the story about architecture, then we felt that, yes, this was something we would look at doing. You're always amazed by a classic style of architecture that is truly American to the core, and Frank Lloyd Wright is truly that."

Once all parties had agreed that moving the Bachman Wilson House to Crystal Bridges and opening it to the public would further the museum's mission of telling the story of American art in all its forms, the focus shifted to the logistical challenge of getting it there.

Storing the Bachman Wilson House in northwest Arkansas. Photo courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.

The Tarantinos, who offered to supervise the deconstruction and consult on the rebuilding as part of the deal (the couple had previously listed the property for $1.5 million, but neither party would disclose a final sale price), had already investigated the possibility of lifting the house and moving it in sections, but they discarded the idea as unworkable. "Because a lot of the Usonian components are modular and were put together with screws and other systems like that," Lawrence says, "it seemed more feasible to dismantle it."

In January 2014, with the help of a contractor, Patullo Brothers Builders, the Tarantinos began deconstructing their home of 26 years piece by piece. Every board and beam was documented and photographed as it came down, and staff members from their firm, Tarantino Studio, produced a new set of drawings with an eye toward demystifying the rebuilding process on the other end. It was a necessarily slow, deliberate process that took the better part of four months.

"The house has a big living room, so we used that as a staging area, and that was the last thing we removed," Lawrence says. "So everything was brought down into the living room and then numbered, labeled, bundled, and stacked, and prepared to be picked up and taken to the warehouse."

At the warehouse, the components were loaded onto container trucks operated by J.B. Hunt Transport, which is based in Arkansas and donated its services, for the long trip to a storage facility in northwestern Arkansas.

Reconstructing the Bachman Wilson House.

The team at Crystal Bridges had selected a site for the house on the South Lawn of its campus, surrounded by a native Ozark forest and overlooking the Crystal Spring—though high enough to ensure no repeat of the flooding the house endured in New Jersey.

Neither the concrete slab on which the house sat nor the concrete blocks that formed the masonry wall made the trip from Millsone, so great care was taken to faithfully recreate both of these elements. Crystal Bridges worked with the L.M. Scofield Co., which had developed the red color used in the concrete floors of many Wright homes, and with ABC Block + Brick of Springdale, Arkansas, to fashion custom concrete blocks to match the ones that were used to build the original Bachman Wilson House.

Adding the first mahogany to the reconstructed Bachman Wilson House.

The job of integrating these newer elements with the original components shipped from New Jersey largely fell to Bill Faber and a crew from his Bentonville-based construction company. Faber, who traveled to New Jersey to meet with the Tarantinos and see the house before it was taken apart, likened the challenge to solving a giant three-dimensional puzzle or reassembling a '57 Chevy from parts, with only charts and photographs as guides. He acknowledged, however, that those analogies fail to capture the difficulty of dealing with weathered and occasionally warped or brittle 60-year-old mahogany panels and beams.

"One of the challenges is, no matter how many pictures you take, you just don't catch all of the things that you're going to have to deal with later," he said. "So it's a matter of picking a board up and going, 'Oh, I didn't realize there was rot on the bottom of this that I've got to take care of now.'"

Adding windows and doors.

Faber reused as many original components as he could and found creative workarounds when he couldn't. For example, he says he used mahogany panels from the inside of the balcony to replace worn-out panels on the balcony's face, giving the original wood greater visibility, while replacement panels were installed where they can't be seen from the outside.

The clerestory frieze that rings the upper portion of the double-height living space is arguably the house's most arresting feature and also the one that gave Faber and his team the most trouble. It is composed of 72 mahogany panels with intricately patterned perforations that cast an ever-changing cascade of shadows in the great room during the day while creating a lantern effect when the house is illuminated at night. The backsides of at least four panels warped—"They curled up on us like crazy," Faber says—and had to be carefully flattened out before they could be reinstalled. In the interest of historical accuracy, officials at Crystal Bridges insisted that any new panels carved to replace fractured ones be made by hand rather than cut by a CNC router.

The reconstruction began in earnest in the fall of 2014, and the house will open to the public on November 11. An interpretive center a short distance from the house, designed by students from the Fay Jones School of Architecture at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, will tell Wright's story and that of this house and its unusual journey. Access to the house, like the rest of the museum, will be free, though timed reservations are likely given the expected demand and the need to preserve the structure by limiting tours to groups of six to 10 at a time, Eccleston says.

Early on, the Tarantinos abandoned their initial plan to temporarily relocate to Bentonville to supervise the reconstruction of the house. Instead they continue to live in a section of their former home—a one-time carport that a previous owner converted into a studio—that was not moved with the rest of the house. They have stayed involved in the reconstruction of the house in an advisory capacity, consulting with Faber, Eccleston, and others on the ground in Arkansas by phone and email. They have made several trips over the past year to see the progress firsthand, and each visit has reinforced their belief that they have succeeded in finding the right new home for the house.

"It was a better transition for us," Sharon Tarantino says. "It allowed us to stay connected to the house during this important process of reconstruction, and we could start to let go at the same time. If we went there and were living there full time, they'd never get rid of us.

"When we went there the last time," she added, "Lawrence said something that was pretty funny: 'I guess we can't change our minds now.'"

Editor: Sara Polsky

· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]
· Frank Lloyd Wright coverage [Curbed]


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