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Crystal Bridges Museum Buys Flood-Damaged Frank Lloyd Wright Home

By C. J. Hughes
January 17, 2014
Photo courtesy Tarantino Studio
The Bachman-Wilson House (1954), designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, has been purchased by the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

A Frank Lloyd Wright house that its owners say is imperiled because of frequent flooding will soon be headed for higher ground, and presumably, drier ground, too.

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On Wednesday, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art announced that it had purchased Wright’s 1954 Bachman-Wilson house, which it plans to relocate from a riverbank in New Jersey to its campus in Bentonville, Arkansas. “It won’t face an issue of rising water here,” said Diane Carroll, a spokeswoman for Crystal Bridges, which opened in 2011 and is funded by heirs to the Walmart fortune.

Dismantling of the 1,800-square-foot concrete-and-mahogany structure, which is located near Princeton, N.J., on a branch of the Raritan River, will begin this month, with the first sections of the house being trucked across the county this spring, Carroll explained. After being reassembled in the woodsy, southwest corner of the museum’s 120-acre grounds, the house will open in 2015 to museumgoers, she added.

The sale, which caps a far-ranging, three-year global marketing effort on the part of the owners, was necessary because the home was battered by several destructive floods over the years, said Lawrence Tarantino, an architect who bought the property with this wife, Sharon, a designer, in 1988. Tropical Storm Irene was among the worst of the bunch, as it sent six feet of river water through the building, which has 10-foot-tall plate-glass windows and cantilevered roofs. “It pushed us into the decision to sell,” he said. The couple, who specialize in Wright rehabs and have their own firm, Tarantino Architect, have restored a dozen Wright homes over the years, Lawrence said.

Interest in the property, which is named for original owners Abraham Wilson and Gloria Bachman, was fairly strong, he added, and included a developer in the Hamptons as well as an Italian town, Fiesole, outside Florence, where Wright lived in 1910. “But with the economy the way it is here, it’s worse there,” said Lawrence.

The Wilson-Bachman house, which Lawrence and Sharon also restored, was listed for $1.5 million, though neither the Tarantinos nor the museum would disclose the sale price. But, as part of the deal, the Tarantinos will help disassemble the home and also make sure it’s reconstructed properly, said Lawrence, who said he was sad to part with his home. “It’s bittersweet, the kind of emotions we’re feeling,” he said. “We are certainly happy that it’s going to be preserved, but we would like to have been in a better situation.”

Though the museum, which was designed by Moshe Safdie, has not yet determined exactly where the Bachman-Wilson house will end up, a favorite spot is by a lattice of nature trails and close to Crystal Spring, a centerpiece of the property. Flooding is not a concern there, Carroll explained, because springs bubble up from the ground and so their water levels rarely fluctuate.

While all the furniture original to the Bachman-Wilson house is included with the sale, it will make its move without its original carport, which was turned into a studio and apartment in 1970; the Tarantinos will live there while they decide whether to rebuild on their two-acre property, which includes a converted barn that serves as their office.

The museum, which offers 50,000 square feet of gallery space across eight connected pavilions, was founded by Walmart heir Alice Walton. Her father, Sam, opened his first store in Bentonville in the 1950s. The museum’s collection, which is heavy on Hudson River School landscapes and early 20th century Modernist paintings, seems to dabble in architecture programming; Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie, now at Los Angeles’s Skirball Cultural Center, will travel to the museum this summer. But the house acquisition does not mark any striking new direction for the museum, Carroll said, adding, “our mission is celebrate the American spirit, in a setting that unites the power of art with the beauty of nature, and architecture is a part of that.”

With the Bachman-Wilson relocation, three Wright homes will be left in New Jersey: in Glen Ridge, Bernardsville, and Cherry Hill, according to Jane Halstead, executive director of the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, a preservation group. Itt’s unfortunate when Wright’s homes have to be moved from properties they’re often so intricately tied to, said Halstead. “You only move one as a last resort,” she said. Yet owing to the recurring flood problems in Bachman-Wilson’s case, “it seemed like a logical step.”

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