In saving a historic building, relocation is usually the preservation strategy of last resort. But after repeated flooding at the original site in Millstone, New Jersey, architects and preservationists Lawrence and Sharon Tarantino felt that they had no other choice but to find someone who would purchase their Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian home and move it to higher ground.
That higher ground turned out to be 1,260 miles away. After a prolonged international search, the Taratinos sold the Bachman-Wilson house in 2013 to Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton for the campus of her Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. The reconstructed house now sits a stone’s throw away from the Moshe Safdie-designed museum and will open to the public November 11.
“The spirit of the house is still there,” says Sharon Tarantino of Bachman-Wilson’s new home. She adds that the organization and orientation of the new site is similar to the original, with a screen of trees and a waterway as the focal point of the living spaces.
Wright’s mid-century Usonian homes (an abbreviation of “the United States of North America”) were intended to bring good design to the middle class and were modest in size and cost. Approximately 120 homes were realized, but the 1,700-square-foot Bachman-Wilson house, built in 1954, is unusual in that it has two stories. But the bulk of the design is classic Usonian, with a low slung entryway that opens into a double height living area; a concrete block service core that serves the kitchen and bathrooms; colored concrete radiant floors; and intimately-scaled sleeping rooms.
The process of reconstruction at Crystal Bridges was somewhat like architectural taxidermy – the Philippine mahogany skin, fixtures and built-ins were surgically removed, catalogued, shipped and then painstakingly placed on an armature of new framing, concrete floors, and concrete block walls.
For these new elements, the design team looked for ways to recreate the character of the original materials. “The concrete block made today is too perfect,” says Scott Eccleston, Crystal Bridges’ Director of Operations. The block fabricator tapped a retired employee to duplicate an older concrete mix so the block would have a more historically accurate texture.
A new entry pavilion, a design-build project by a studio at the University of Arkansas School of Architecture, is a fitting transition from the curvilinear forms of the Safdie-designed museum to the horizontal lines and organic details of the Bachman-Wilson house. This pavilion sits about a hundred yards in front of the Wright house and frames the entry facade with an intricately layered translucent roof that arcs over an interpretive display wall.
Final touches for the relocation project included the removal of additions and details that were not part of Wright’s original plans. “The composition is complete; it’s Frank Lloyd Wright’s design in total,” Lawrence Tarantino says. Sharon adds “The house looks like it has always been there.”