Monday, February 15, 2016

Frank Lloyd Wright - Usonian House Moves to the Ozarks

Bachman-Wilson House at Crystal Bridges Museum
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

Frank Lloyd Wright - Usonian House moves to the Ozarks
Bachman-Wilson house travels 1200 miles to new home
by Gregory E. Larson, AIA

          “A Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house has been moved from New Jersey to Arkansas! Why in heavens name would anyone want to do that?”
          My excitement got Gretta’s attention. “Where is it?”
          “In Bentonville. The Crystal Bridges Museum purchased it and moved it to a site on the museum grounds. It opens for tours in November. We’ve got to see it.” 
          I thought of the long list of Wright buildings we had seen through the years at various places throughout the United States . . . Fallingwater . . . Hollyhock House . . . Arizona Biltmore . . . Price Tower . . . Taliesen (East and West), and many more. I was salivating at the chance to see another one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s architectural treasures.
          “We’ve not seen the Crystal Bridges Museum, yet,” said Gretta. “Let’s make it a road trip.”
          On the internet I was able to find some additional information before we began the journey to Arkansas. The Crystal Bridges Museum, designed by architect Mosha Safdie, opened in 2011 to display the large American art collection of the Walton Foundation. The museum is located in a wooded valley on a 120-acre site near downtown Bentonville, Arkansas. A main feature in the valley is the Town Branch Creek which bisects the property.
Crystal Bridges Museum designed by Architect Mosha Safdie
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA
     How the Bachman-Wilson House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1953 found its way to Arkansas is its own unique story. The Usonian-style home was designed and constructed along the Millstone River in New Jersey for Abraham and Gloria Wilson. Gloria’s brother, Marvin Bachman was a Taliesen Fellow in Frank Lloyd Wright’s design studio. It was through his association that the Wilson’s were able to convince Wright to design them a home.
          Usonian houses (named for the United States of North America) were Frank Lloyd Wright’s Depression-era design solutions for modest residential architecture with the goal of using good design principles and lower-cost construction techniques. Most were single-story homes with few partitions, where space flows between the common areas. The Bachman-Wilson house is a rare Usonian house with a second-level.
          The house was purchased in 1988 by Lawrence and Sharon Tarantino, architectural designers who lovingly restored the details and built complimentary Wright-style furniture.
          Unfortunately, the dwelling was too close to the Millstone River, and flood waters damaged the interior and exterior more than once. The Tarantinos concluded that it would not continue to survive at its original location, and they began looking for a buyer who would move it.
          In 2011, they were watching the CBS Sunday Morning show, which had a segment describing the Crystal Bridges Museum.  They contacted the museum to see if there was any interest to move the house to Arkansas. The museum purchased the house and developed plans to physically move it in such a way to keep the historical accuracy intact.
Bachman-Wilson House is now open for tours
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA
          The tidbits of architectural information continued to fuel my fascination with the move of the house from New Jersey to Arkansas, but I saw a much different kind of interest from Gretta. She seemed to be focused on the idea of a relaxing road trip. For her, the Bachman-Wilson House was a novelty – another museum object, albeit a 3D object, to ponder and view.          
          Before the trip, she recalled our visit to Fallingwater, Wright’s iconic 1937 residential design which was perched above a waterfall in the Pennsylvania woods. “It was such a pretty day when we were at Fallingwater. I loved walking in the woods and touring the house. I remember the large living spaces and the views to the decks and the woods, but the other spaces were so tiny – the bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchen. I don’t think I could live in one of Wright’s houses.”
          On our day of the visit and tour of the Bachman-Wilson House, we walked along one of the three miles of hiking trails on the museum grounds. It was early December and the leaves had fallen from the trees, but the oak-leaf hydrangeas and other shrubs in the valley along the creek reflected rusty hues.  Then I saw the house through the trees and the reflection in Crystal Springs Pond. It was partially visible and appeared almost as an illusion. My first thought was an apparition in an Ozark holler!
Bachman-Wilson House above Crystal Springs Pond
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA
          We met the tour group at the museum and wound our way up the hill to the front lawn of the house. Our guide explained that Wright purposely made the front of the house turn its back on the public. There were few windows to the front lawn. The major element was the long horizontal wall of concrete blocks.
Front Exterior Bachman-Wilson House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas
Photo by Nancy Nolan Photography
          “It’s not a very big house,” said Gretta. My thoughts exactly, but it was very pristine-looking with the long overhanging roof and the narrow band of windows, called a clerestory which separated the wall and the roof.
          The guide shared that all of the concrete blocks and the concrete floor in the house were rebuilt as closely to the original specifications, since those items were unable to be removed and relocated. All of the other elements of the house were carefully deconstructed and packed into two moving vans for the 1200-mile road trip from New Jersey to Arkansas. The house was then rebuilt on a site selected above the Crystal Springs Pond to mimic the original site near the Millstone River in New Jersey.
          We entered the house and walked along a short, narrow hallway which had a low, mahogany wood ceiling. Then voila, the space opened up to a large living room with a high ceiling, and a beautiful southwest view of the woods and pond. The afternoon sun created bright patterns on the Cherokee-red concrete floor which had radiant heat built into the slab. Built-in benches and shelves lined one side of the living space, and a custom-designed light fixture was a feature at the side of the room.

Living Space Bachman-Wilson House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas
Photo by Nancy Nolan Photography
          I noticed the mitered edges on the mahogany face of the balcony trim above the dining area, where spaces all seemed to converge near the fireplace. The tour guide pointed to the tiny hearth which was open to the room, and shared with us that the Tarantinos had to set the logs vertically on the grate to get the flue to draw the heat properly.
Dining Bachman-Wilson House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas
Photo by Nancy Nolan Photography
          The remainder of the first floor of the house, although finely detailed, was a series of small spaces for the kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom. The guide shared that Wright did not like a lot of clutter, thus he didn’t like enclosed garages where things could pile up. Once outside, he showed us how the cantilevered roof had enough overhang to create a carport.
Guest Bedroom/Study Bachman-Wilson House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright
Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas
Photo by Nancy Nolan Photography
          At the end of the tour, we stood in the warm afternoon sun looking at the exterior of the house above the pond – a peaceful view of Wright’s simple design.
          My mind was trying to digest all of the details to compare them in the historical context of Wright’s creations. It looked to me like a perfect teaching tool where those who don’t know much about Wright could learn some of the simple design principles of his organic architecture.
          I wondered what the general public thought of the house, so I asked Gretta, “What’s your impression, now that you’ve taken the tour?”
          “It has that Frank Lloyd Wright look. You know — kind of angular, lots of glass, and interesting open space on the inside. I couldn’t live there. It doesn’t seem homey and cozy. I don’t like fru-fru interiors, on the other hand, I don’t like something as edgy as a Frank Lloyd Wright house. His buildings seem more like art objects — something to look at.”
          In a relaxed state, I stood there in the sunshine and continued to soak in the surroundings, ambience of the day and the setting. I don’t know if I would enjoy living in one of his houses . . . maybe . . . maybe not. It would be fun to give it a try. I listened to the spring water babbling into the pond and gazed at the mahogany doors, the red concrete, and the light filtering through the large expanses of glass, all surrounded by the woodsy setting.  Something to look at . . . yes it is . . . and so much more.

Rear Exterior of Bachman-Wilson House
photo by Gregory E. Larson, AIA