BENTONVILLE, Ark. — On August 17, 1953, Gloria and Abraham Wilson sent a letter to one of the most famous architects in the United States. It began: “Dear Mr. Wright: Would you design a house for us?”
Frank Lloyd Wright, who was then in his 80s, responded simply: “My dear Wilsons: I suppose I am still here to try to do houses for such as you.”
The Bachman-Wilson House was designed by Wright in 1954 as one of his Usonian houses, which were intended as more middle-class versions of his modernist architecture (although they regularly cost twice as much as homes of similar size). The “Bachman” in the house was a tribute to the brother of Gloria Wilson (neé Bachman), who was a Taliesin fellow until his death in a car crash.
The mention of Gloria’s brother in the Wilson letter may have influenced Wright in choosing to design their New Jersey home, or perhaps he did feel as if he was still there to build houses like theirs. He was after all still exceptionally active — his iconic Guggenheim Museum in New York would open in 1959, six months after his death — and still believed in his Usonian ideals, where mid-century style was within reach of average citizens, or at least the inhabitants of some utopian fantasy version of the USA (the “US” of which gives Usonian its name).
Unfortunately, the Bachman-Wilson House’s original rustic setting along the Millstone River in New Jersey’s Somerset County resulted in decades of repeated flooding. On November 11 of last year, the house opened to the public in its new permanent home: the grounds of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas. The institution started by Walmart heiress Alice Walton announced the acquisition of the house in 2014, and relocated each piece of the home to a bluff overlooking the museum and its Crystal Spring waterway, which is a safe distance below.
The house’s survival was insured by Lawrence and Sharon Tarantino, who bought the home in 1988 and dedicated themselves to its restoration, including researching archives for Wright’s original plans. Still, no amount of attention to detail could keep the water from coming through the home, and after attempts to move it to Sagaponack, New York, in 2011, and Florence, Italy, in 2013, they finally got in touch with Crystal Bridges, which had just opened in 2011.
The Bachman-Wilson House is accessed by a winding path that veers off into the Ozarks woods from the museum’s main building, leading through a welcome pavilion. Moshe Safdie’s museum building, with its emphasis on wood, concrete, glass, and water, is a more bombastic compliment to Wright’s home. The welcome pavilion was created by students at the Fay Jones School of Architecture and Design at the University of Arkansas, and Crystal Bridges.
While this is Arkansas’ first Wright home — and the move reduced New Jersey’s stock from four to three — the state is already strong in mid-century modernism thanks to Wright’s protégé E. Fay Jones, whose buildings include Thorncrown Chapel. The acquisition also joins the growing roster of high-profile art — and now architecture — arriving at Crystal Bridges through the long reach of Walmart, such as a $44-million Georgia O’Keeffe purchased last year, or more contentious deals like the shared ownership of Fisk University’s Stieglitz Collection brokered in 2013.
The reconstruction of the home at Crystal Bridges is immaculate, although necessary adjustments include a basement for HVAC. The concrete blocks on the stern façade are perfectly aligned with their long lines, the mahogany details inside and out contrast with the trees outside, and the Cherokee Red concrete floor greets visitors both on the entryway steps and the interior’s gridded floors, which radiate heat. Wright’s more elaborate homes, including Fallingwater in Pennsylvania, are like livable sculptures, but the Usonian homes still firmly emphasize his ideas about space.
If you live in a Wright home, no matter its size, you’re giving up your own aesthetic and immersing yourself in his, right down to the built-in table where diners face a concrete wall — rather than make space for seating on the opposite side, which would spoil the symmetry. And if you visit the Bachman-Wilson Home at sunset, you get the full experience of his use of light. During the day it pours in through the 10-foot glass windows that cover the backyard side, and once the sun is down, everything is in shadow aside from the small lights that dot the bookshelves and hide in kitchen nooks. Even a middle-class New Jersey house was, for Wright, all about interacting with nature, and when the light faded, the dark descended right up to the doorstep. In this way, even now that the home is 1,200 miles from the environment for which it was designed, something essential of Wright’s original intention has been preserved.
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