Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Usonian’ house rises again in Arkansas

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Crystal Bridges museum finds just the spot for architect’s Bachman Wilson House, formerly of New Jersey

Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1950s Bachman Wilson House was moved from its flood-prone location on a riverbank in Millstone, New Jersey, to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. Photo: © 2014 Tarantino Studio

How many truckloads does it take to transport a 2,800 sq. ft house, designed by one of America’s most revered Modern architects, more than 1,200 miles from New Jersey to Arkansas? Surprisingly, the answer is considerably fewer than one might think.

Staff at the three-year-old Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art put that question to the test recently when Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1950s Bachman Wilson House was moved from its flood-prone location on a riverbank in Millstone, New Jersey, to the institution’s sprawling 120-acre campus in Bentonville, Arkansas. After months of preparation, Wright’s two-storey concrete-block, glass and mahogany structure is beginning to take shape; the structure’s first posts are due to be raised this month.

The house was built for Abraham Wilson and his wife Gloria Bachman, whose brother had an apprenticeship with the architect. Designed in 1954, the building is one of Wright’s “Usonian” houses—the architect’s answer to good-quality homes for middle-income families.

The museum bought the Bachman Wilson House from Lawrence and Sharon Tarantino, its owners of 25 years, in 2013. The husband-and-wife architect-designer team decided to look at options for relocating the structure after increased flooding in the area put it at risk. The house, which sits by the Millstone River, had flooded every season for the past seven years; indeed, the site flooded once again this year after the building had been removed.

Dismantling fell to the Tarantinos, with each piece carefully inventoried and labelled, and in April, the house, together with its fixtures and furnishings, arrived in Arkansas in two 53ft containers. “Getting it here was a real milestone; it arrived in a thousand individually wrapped pieces,” says Scott Eccleston, the director of grounds and facilities at the museum. “Each piece is stamped and has a drawing attached to it, so we know exactly how it fits into the structure,” he says. “Having these drawings offers me some peace of mind that the reconstruction will, hopefully, go smoothly.”

Finding a space for the house on the museum’s campus also proved to be an interesting challenge. “[The museum’s founder] Alice Walton challenged us to find a site similar to the one in New Jersey,” Eccleston says. “We have the water and trees, but our terrain is more rugged, so access was a key concern.” They settled on a secluded spot overlooking Crystal Spring that Eccleston had been “saving for something special”. “You feel as though you’re in the middle of the forest,” he says. “We wanted to capture Wright’s mission of integrating nature into his architecture. The last thing we wanted was for our other structures to compete with each other.”

Eccleston says that he is “humbled” by the overwhelming support the project has received. “I’ve had architects from all over the world offering to help. I’ve also had people wanting to move here just so they can show visitors around the house,” he says. An interpretative pavilion—a collaboration with students from the University of Arkansas—will provide visitors with information on Wright and the Bachman Wilson House, as well other buildings in the museum’s grounds.

Although the structure will begin to rise this month, the house is not expected to open for tours until next summer. “We’re working with people who appreciate fine craftsmanship. It may be the long way to do things, but it’s the right way,” Eccleston says. “We’ll take our time and do it right.”

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