Wright Decision: Bachman Wilson House Finds Home in Bentonville

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The entire structure was two inches out of kilter. And despite its distinguished name and its status as an important piece of architecture, the Bachman Wilson House is only 1,700 SF, is made largely of concrete blocks, and was built without insulation, drywall or a garage.

But its purchase by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art made national headlines, and with the site taking shape on a hillock near the museum’s Great Hall, it’s easy to understand why: The 1954 house was designed by acclaimed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. With its simple lines, mahogany interior and soaring wall of glass, Bachman Wilson is not just the only Wright structure in Arkansas, but is among the largest pieces of art in the museum’s renowned collection.

Endangered by repeated flooding at its original location in Millstone, New Jersey, Bachman Wilson was dismantled piece by piece and moved last year to Bentonville in two J.B. Hunt tractor trailers.

That a Wright home would sell is not unique. According to the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, 18 of his homes sold in the last two years. Rather, what makes Bachman Wilson different is that it’s only the second of around 500 Wright structures — the other is the Pope Leighey House in Virginia — to have ever been disassembled and moved from its original location.

Putting Bachman Wilson back together won’t be easy. In addition to the typical challenges of high-end construction are the quality demands of Crystal Bridges, and the meticulous standards of preservation upheld by both the Wright conservancy and the house’s former owners, Lawrence and Sharon Tarantino.

Together, the profile and difficulty of Bachman Wilson make it a project of international prestige. Not surprisingly, the contract for its restoration is in the hands of people Crystal Bridges can trust — architect Ron Shelby, CEO of Hight-Jackson Associates PA of Rogers, and master builder Bill Faber, owner of Bill Faber Construction of Bentonville.

Even before the museum concluded the deal, Shelby and Faber traveled to New Jersey for a tour of the house and to talk with its owners. Shelby said the plane ride back to Arkansas was exciting because he and Faber knew the Bachman Wilson acquisition would be huge. Wright, after all, is widely considered the greatest architect in American history, and Bachman Wilson, designed late in his prolific career, tells an enduring story.

“Everything can be art,” Shelby said.

 

Modern Amenities

Bachman Wilson’s fate was sealed in 2011, when it flooded during Hurricane Irene. Having flooded in 1999, 2007 and 2010, the Tarantinos knew the house had to be sold and moved or it would be destroyed.

The Tarantinos, owners of the house since 1988, were not overreacting when they listed the structure and its relocation for $1.5 million. Over the decades, dozens of Wright works have perished due to fire, neglect and development.

At some point after they’d decided to sell — and after a deal to move the house to Italy failed — the Tarantinos saw Crystal Bridges featured on television, and started connecting the dots. As aficionados of Wright, they knew he had ties to Fay Jones, the most notable architect Arkansas ever produced.

“It started to make sense,” Sharon Tarantino said.

Talks with Crystal Bridges heated up, the purchase was made, and the Tarantinos found themselves overseeing the deconstruction and documentation of the two-bedroom home they’d lived in for over 20 years. Though the Tarantinos loved living there — “It was a magical experience,” Sharon Tarantino said — they had no misgivings about deeding it over to the museum.

“This has been a long time coming, so we can’t be happier because we feel like Crystal Bridges is the best option for preserving it,” Sharon Tarantino said.

Bachman Wilson, commissioned by Abraham Wilson and Gloria Bachman, is a Usonian structure, a term used in reference to about 60 of Wright’s middle-income homes with flat roofs, natural lighting with clerestory windows, and made with affordable materials. Built across the nation, the economical Usonians complement Wright’s portfolio of larger works, like Fallingwater, his sprawling masterpiece in western Pennsylvania. 

One of the biggest tricks to the reconstruction is the installation of modern amenities in a house that was never meant to have them. While radiant heat through the floor using water and pipes was always a feature, Bachman Wilson had no air conditioning, no insulation, and the glass wall across the length of the living room had no UV protection and was not tempered.

Since the house will feature original furniture and fixtures and is being repositioned as an educational space that could include exhibits, those things will have to change. For starters, an HVAC system was installed in the basement, where it’s hidden from view. And as construction continues, Shelby and Faber will look for any nook-and-cranny they can find in order to conceal the modern elements the house will have to have if it’s to function as a public space that will host thousands, and even hundreds of thousands, in the coming years.

“We have to have a way to condition this house without compromising the architectural integrity of the building,” Shelby said. “We want to make the home appropriate without anything being seen.”

 

Fractions of Inches

Bachman Wilson can look much bigger than it really is. Wright did this by minimizing the private spaces while at the same time maximizing the open, pavilion-like ground floor with a harmonious kitchen, living room and fireplace. Add to that the verticality of the framed glass, the out-swinging doors and the patio, and Bachman Wilson has the ability to entertain many guests.

For years, the Tarantinos did just that.

“It was important that we shared the house with family and colleagues,” Sharon Tarantino said. “[The house] made you feel like you had a much grander space.”

For Shelby, that’s the true genius of the home — from a small footprint comes a big impression. Horizontal lines give way to vertical lines, and the environment outside the home seeps into the interior.

“It’s the openness of the floorplan,” Shelby said. “At the time [Bachman Wilson was built], houses were boxes within boxes.”

While many houses have a room or rooms that rarely get used — the formal dining room, for example — Bachman Wilson is not one of them. By its very design, the intent was that the inhabitants used every room every day.

What this means for the reconstruction is that it’s not a game of inches, but of fractions of inches. Make a tiny mistake in one area and it will appear in another, and if that happens, the house doesn’t meet muster. In response to the project’s demands, Shelby and Faber have left nothing to chance.

Any Philippine mahogany that has to be replaced will be hand-picked by the Tarantinos at a lumber yard in New Jersey. A special masonry jointer was fabricated so the signature groove in the mortar between cinderblocks is exactly the same, regardless of who the mason is.

Location and setting were also chief concerns when the Tarantinos first considered moving the house. Bachman Wilson was supposed to remain in its idyllic world near the Millstone River in Somerset County. When that was no longer possible, the Tarantinos had to find a suitable replacement.

The 120-acre campus at Crystal Bridges, both lush and scenic, was ideal, and beyond that, the Bachman Wilson site has been bored for drainage and utilities, and a 350-foot wall of native stone, much of it hand-chiseled, already encircles the area.

Under the leadership of veterans like Shelby and Faber, the project is serving as a laboratory for young talent. Shayan Dehbozorgi, an architect intern at Hight-Jackson, made most of the new drawings needed for the site. Jason Hackett, a University of Arkansas architecture student and finish carpenter, is the site’s superintendent. And the enclosed interpretive center that accompanies the Bachman Wilson house is being developed by UA architecture students.

People from across the country are already wanting to tour the home. Sometime later this year, they’ll get what they want. In the meantime, it’s all about the work.

Faber, who grew up in construction and who specializes in custom housing, jumped at the chance to reconstruct Bachman Wilson. For Faber, the project is about taking an imperfectly built home and rebuilding it back to perfection with its imperfections intact.

Easier said than done, and that’s just how Faber likes it.

“I’ve always loved a challenge,” he said. “If everyone could do it, what’s the fun in that?”  

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