The story of how Frank Lloyd Wright's Bachman Wilson House found its way to Arkansas is one of stewardship, devotion and sacrifice
Photo by TarantinoSTUDIO © 2015; Courtesy of Crystal Bridges
IT WAS A HOME that deserved to be saved. And saved, it was—first, when the Tarantinos bought the house and tracked down its original owner, got the original blueprints and set to work restoring it piece by piece. Second, when a flood by the name of Floyd—and that irony is not lost on Sharon—struck in 1999. And then, despite their best efforts to mitigate disaster, six more times—each time the Millstone River behind the house overcame its banks, curled its way up the lawn, lapping beneath the door jambs and between the window frames, drowning the house in brackish brown water, sometimes as much as 6 feet of it, as was the case with Irene.
And Irene was the last one they could take.
The decision to save the house once and for all came on Nov. 6, 2011, a date Sharon can rattle off-the-cuff, like a loved one’s birthday. Because in a way, it is.
“We saw CBS’s Sunday Morning show on Nov. 6, 2011, and they interviewed Alice Walton about Crystal Bridges, and at that time, a lightbulb went on,” Sharon says over the phone from Millstone, New Jersey, her voice catching in her throat. “Here is an incredible museum of American art, and it’s on a wooded site, and Fay Jones is an important apprentice in Arkansas who connects very well to Frank Lloyd Wright, and what a wonderful connection all of the pieces are. And on that moment, Nov. 6, 2011, we felt strongly that a possibility might be there.”
And so, two years later, as snow covered the ground and the Millstone River stood silent in the mid-Atlantic winter, the Bachman Wilson house came down in pieces. The Tarantinos—he an architect, she a designer—examined all of their home’s innards, all of the lumber, the windows, the built-in bookcases and casegoods, cataloging their existence and sketching their whereabouts on an as-built blueprint. Then they wrapped the items in industrial-strength plastic wrap, affixed labels to the bundles—“Frank Lloyd Wright, Bachman Wilson, HANDLE WITH CARE”—and placed them carefully to the side, where a J.B. Hunt truck would soon gather them and cart them 1,235 miles southwest to Bentonville, Arkansas, to the grounds of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
SCOTT ECCLESTON LEANS HIS LANKY SELF over and picks up a rectangular block of poured concrete, flicking cakes of clay from its surface. “Does it surprise you that it’s concrete block?” he asks, cocking his head in the direction of the house, which, at the moment, is partially obscured by a Mack dump truck.
I look up toward the house, brushing a strand of hair from my eyes. A cool breeze blows through the oaks’ greening limbs, offering peeks of the museum to the north, the trails and great lawn to the south. I pause a moment to remind myself where I am because it’s hard to sort it out in my head, really, the fact that I’ve pretty well transcended space and time to be standing here in the sun, soaking my black ballet flats in the rusty mud of a Frank Lloyd Wright construction site. I nod. Yes. Yes, it does surprise me, I tell Scott.
“It’s just mahogany, glass, concrete floors and concrete block, and the concrete block—well, it couldn’t be saved,” he says, setting the block back down on the pile. “Feel this.”It looks like what I’d call a cinder block. It’s rough and ragged, and I’m sure if you were to look closely—like, magnifying-glass close—you’d see a grayed-out landscape of peaks and ridges, ridges and peaks. Petrified meringue.
“Today’s concrete block is really smooth—they do that because they want it to repel water,” Scott continues, placing the block back atop the pile. “We actually had to go to a local block company, and we had a real block from Millstone, and we said, we need you to do this. And they said, ‘Why?’ And we said, this is how they did it in the ’50s. And they actually had to pull a guy from retirement that could show them how to go old-school on this block.”
As we walk up to the house, Scott’s telling me about the lengths to which they’re going in order to accentuate the horizontality of the house, how they’ve built a tool that will blend the vertical mortar joints until they disappear, and then he’s pointing out the mahogany clerestory windows and their scroll-cut panels, and all the while, I’m looking at those damn black ballet flats to avoid the puddles, and then all of a sudden, we’re inside. The ceiling’s low; the concrete floor, red. Cherokee Red. For a moment, my heart catches in my chest.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s color.
Scott, who as Crystal Bridges’ director of grounds and facilities has overseen this project from its inception, knows far better than I do why it had to be Cherokee Red. He knows that there were no other options, no shortcuts that could be taken, even though Cherokee Red was no longer being poured, and he had to have it custom-mixed by its original maker, Scofield. Scott knows because he sat in this very house when it was in Millstone two years ago, “drinking coffee and drinking coffee and drinking coffee” with the Tarantinos until the light was just right, until the clerestory panels fractured the sunset into a pattern of pixels that danced across the Cherokee Red floor. He knows because he gets it.
He gets why it has to be this way.
Bill Faber, the contractor heading up the reconstruction, gets it, too. As Scott and I are talking about the floors, about the way they fall in a 4-by-4-foot grid, the way they line up with the windows, with the blocks, with everything, Bill’s monkeying with the structural fins that support the 10-foot mahogany-framed doors that line the back of the house’s soaring two-story living space. And he’s chuckling, too, in that “It is what it is!” way, because they just don’t all fit the way they should. Sort of like the window in the kitchen, which stumped Bill until he figured out that there “was a hump in the block” back in New Jersey, which meant he had to figure out how to put a hump in the block in Bentonville, too.
On most construction sites these days, if things don’t line up, if things are uneven, if there’s, say, a hump in the block, it’s fixable: Fudge it a little, slap on some drywall, adjust the hinges. Bill? Bill doesn’t have that luxury. He’s not constructing with raw materials. He’s following 60-plus-year-old prints with, for the most part, 60-plus-year-old materials—materials that were built by craftsmen, not sold by Home Depot. Which is actually something that he understands quite well, given that he spent the first half of his career as a master carpenter and the second half building homes for folks with last names like Hunt and Tyson.
It’s not easy, doing things this way. It’s not easily apparent that where Wright might have drawn a 4-foot square, the original contractor said, “3-foot-11-inches, close enough!” But as Bill bounces around the site, pointing out boards he massaged the tension out of, places where he’s tucked away 2015 technologies into the concrete block, it’s easy to see that he appreciates the challenge.
“We have the original nail holes, and we put new nails in the old nail holes, and when you can feel it go right into that original framing, you know it is where it was in New Jersey,” he says, thumbing through a stack of scroll-cut clerestory panels perched together against a concrete wall, waiting to be reattached. “And then you think, OK, we’ve got it. Even though it might not be perfect, or the way that we would normally do it, it’s the way it was.”
The way it was. The way Wright created it to be. The way the Tarantinos wanted it to be.
“We have to understand that [the Tarantinos] have saved the house from flood after flood after flood, and then dealt with it having to come apart, all the while saying to themselves, ‘You know, will anyone really take care of this house like they said?’” Scott says, eyes cast toward the clerestory. “And I’m telling you, the answer would have been no, in their mind. No one would ever be able to be the steward that they were. And you can’t blame them for that. [It wasn’t] until they came up here and saw opportunities for shortcuts—because, let’s be honest, there would have plenty of opportunities—and Sharon said, crying out there on that sidewalk, and I mean, she was so upset, she said, ‘They did it the right way.’ And Lawrence said, ‘Yes. Yes, they did.’
“And I think that embodies what this whole project has been about. It’s the handshaking of stewardship, going into the next generation and on from there.”
“IT WAS JUST PILES OF WOOD,” Greg Herman, University of Arkansas associate professor of architecture, tells me. I’ve just asked him what it was like to first see the house upon its arrival in Arkansas in bits and pieces. It was, he says, “like a lumberyard.”
He settles back into his office chair, leaning it far enough back that it almost touches the books lining the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves behind him: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian Homes. Ozark Vernacular Houses. Heidegger’s Writings. Greg clears his throat and continues.
“It had lost its spirit in the disassembly, and I took the students out there, and here’s this amazing Frank Lloyd Wright house, and it’s just piles of lumber,” he says. “It needs the reassembly in order to find its spirit, its Wright-ness. And that was an interesting experience because we all thought we’d be pumped to see this Wright house in a warehouse, and it just looked like lumber. Plastic sheets over it. Nothing romantic. No clues that there was any kind of genius involved.”
And yet Greg knew of its genius—and what he didn’t know, he learned. “One of the things that’s interesting about Wright’s Usonians is that their configurations change, their geometries change—there is a familial relationship between them, but they’re all distinct,” Greg explains, turning to his computer screen. “The Bachman Wilson house is based on a grid of squares; there are some that are based on rectangles and triangles. Let me show you.”
And he does, flipping through a PowerPoint presentation on his iMac. Tasked with directing a team of UA students in the creation of the site’s interpretive materials, he and a team of undergrads scoured the Frank Lloyd Wright archives at Columbia University’s Avery Library—they were the first group of students ever allowed to do so—and created timelines, cross sections, light studies and scale models of the house from various perspectives. Together, their work will help inform visitors to the house—over 200,000 folks are expected to pass through its doors the first year—on Frank Lloyd Wright’s philosophies and how they relate to his Usonian homes, like the Bachman Wilson.
“Very few Wright homes have been opened to the public,” Greg says after showing me the last of the slides. “This is the only one that I can think of that’s associated with an art museum’s campus, in its totality. It’s also the very first Wright house in Arkansas. And that—I think it elevates the dialogue, it elevates the consciousness of design, even though it’s a 60-year-old house. It’s current enough, modern-feeling enough. It’s a little bit of a game changer.”
But will people really get it?
“It’s like Fay Jones—Fay Jones’ architecture was not an intellectual modernism. There’s a lot of intellectual modernism that’s difficult to connect to,” Greg says. “Same with Wright. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t spiritual. It was extremely thoughtful, extremely spiritual. And this? This one is a beautiful house.”
Back at the house, back at Crystal Bridges, these connections—this game-changing dialogue—it’s already happening. It’s happening even as the walls are being raised, as concrete block is laid, as the windows are gently snuggled back into the frames that have cradled them for six decades. People stop and watch the construction. People linger, like the pair of retired architects—armed with lawn chairs and coolers, ready for a show—who showed up on the day the crew started digging out the site.
The other day, Scott tells me, a trio of home-schooled siblings gathered on the south lawn. The lesson, their mother explained to them, was to draw the popular “Love” sculpture that’s installed near the spring, below the house. Two of them followed instructions. One of them did not.
“Why would you draw that sculpture, Mom,” Scott heard the eldest say, “when you can draw that house?”
RECENTLY, SHE FOUND HIM WATCHING IT.
Sharon heard the familiar soundtrack and found Lawrence in the barn that functions as a studio on their Millstone property—the property that flooded a month after the J.B. Hunt trucks drove away, the property where, day in and day out, they’re trying to figure out where to go next, how to move on—and he was watching it, the video he took to preserve the memory, to show Alice Walton what it was like, what her house was like when it was someone’s home.
“And I went to see it,” Sharon says, “and it does choke me up because I think, my goodness … just … it’s so inspiring to see it through his eyes, and to feel that sort of spirit—a house is a home when people make it into their own, and what that spirit is is seeing the light, feeling the warmth.”
And if she’d lingered long enough behind him as he watched the video, she would’ve seen, again, that the black of the last frame cross-fades into an infinitely starry sky, a frame Lawrence added to the end of the video those few years ago. And she’d have seen two circles—two stars, let’s say—emerge from either side of the screen, crawling across it, converging on the center. She’d have seen that when they reach the middle, they stall, together for a time, and then, even more quickly than they came together, shoot off into the night.
From our house, a text overlay reads as the music begins to fade, to your house.
See this piece in the wild here.