Crystal Bridges Reconstructs a Frank Lloyd Wright House in Arkansas
“You might say: Why do I have to be perfect?” Scott Eccleston, Director of Operations for Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, Arkansas, posits the question as we walk through the museum’s recently acquired and newly reconstructed Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home—after the building’s long journey from New Jersey, for which it was entirely disassembled, transported in pieces over 1,200 miles, then put back together. The Bachman-Wilson House, named for the couple who commissioned it from Wright, was completed in 1954 on the bank of New Jersey’s Millstone River. Sixty-one years later, the house has landed here, in the midst of Crystal Bridges’s 120-acre grounds, just a stone’s throw from its own alluring building designed by Moshe Safdie and financed by Alice Walton, daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton.
As we stroll through the impeccably restored icon of modernist architecture, a few potential answers to Eccleston’s question come to mind: the pressures of defending the relocation of an artwork to what many would consider the middle of nowhere, or of reconstructing a home by such a widely beloved American architect. But Eccleston has something more specific in mind.
“It’s because of the horizontal lines,” he says. “He keeps the line.” And indeed, the lines typical to Wright’s Usonian style—expressed in the 120 or so low-cost houses he conceived for the middle classes—are perhaps even more fundamental to this particular house, one of the few two-story structures Wright designed in the style. It’s the exaggeration of the horizontal lines that gives an observer, whether standing in the living room or gazing up from outside, the feeling of experiencing the expression of a single, unified architectural thought. Its most prominent feature is a five-plank-wide mahogany band that wraps around one end of the outer structure, giving its two upstairs bedrooms mirrored balconies, and cuts through the interior to form an indoor balcony overlooking the living room. “It makes a lot of sense, but it is very difficult to build,” Eccleston says, “because if you get off a couple inches here and there you can’t hide it, and it throws everything off.”
It’s to his team’s credit that on first approach of the building’s largely concrete facade, none of this toil is visible. Only upon closer scrutiny does its exquisite detailing, its elegant material contrasts, and its age—betrayed by a minuscule scuff on a kitchen cabinet or a dated heating vent—come into focus.
The attention to such details in the reconstruction underscores the desire of Eccleston’s team to realize Wright’s original intention—no easy feat given the circumstances. As he puts it, “This was about saving a house.” Bachman-Wilson’s most recent owners, Lawrence and Sharon Tarantino, professionally restored the home after they bought it in 1988 but put it on the market in 2012 after enduring repeated flooding that sometimes rose all the way up to the second story. Its location next to the Millstone River was sure to be its downfall, and, putting its preservation first, the couple stipulated in the terms of sale that the house had to be moved.
Crystal Bridges bought it in 2013. Just months later, it was fully deconstructed, each piece wrapped, labelled, and put in two trucks that carried them 1,235 miles to Arkansas. The components arrived in April of 2014, and Eccleston and his team have spent the past 18 months giving them new life. “A lot of people ask about how difficult is it to take apart a house, and then think about putting it back together? Very difficult,” laughs Eccleston. “Now I know why they pick up houses and they move them all together.”
The effects of this process are evident in the building’s new concrete foundation and concrete brick walls, which had to be made from scratch. “We actually had to make concrete block the way it was made in the ’50s,” says Eccleston. His team sought out an original employee of the same company that produced the home’s brick and asked him to reproduce its formula. “[Our builders] said, okay, here’s the computer. He said, I don’t want the computer, I don’t even know how to work the computer. Here’s the mix. So he mixed it, and then they copied the mix.”
Such precision is necessitated by Wright’s designs. “He said, look, I’m going to celebrate the craftsman, and I’m not going to use any sheetrock, and the craftsman is going to have to close everything perfectly,” Eccleston says. Accomplishing this the first time is challenging; honoring that mandate is all the more arduous with a structure that’s been dismantled and exposed to the elements. “Something that we didn’t think about is giving these wood pieces freedom,” Eccleston emphasizes. “Take out the nails, add a little bit of humidity, and watch them come back to life. You would think that they just kept their form, but no, they had freedom.”
From teasing that wood back into its original shape to laying the ’50s-style concrete foundation from scratch, the nitty-gritty of reconstruction was overseen by local contractor Bill Faber. “You learn so much from doing this, rather than having to just build a reproduction,” Faber says. “By putting it back together and seeing how they did it, all of a sudden the things they did make sense. When you put a new nail in the old nail hole and it goes right into the framing behind it and it lines right back up, that feels incredible.”
This kind of alignment is reflected in how well the home fits into its new surroundings—a synthesis most evident from its resplendent backside. There, a towering wall of vertical windows is anchored by modest concrete steps and topped by three rows of custom-cut wooden panels in an intricate design. When the afternoon sun streams in, the resulting mosaic mix of shadows cast by the vertical lines, the panel detail, and the leaves engulfs the home inside and out. Against the home’s clean lines, only its fluted, cropped drainpipes feel as ornamental. “They drive my trails and grounds team crazy,” Eccleston says.
Wright’s inclusive spirit extends throughout the execution of the reconstruction, not least in the involvement of the nearby University of Arkansas’s architectural students (whose school is named for Fay Jones, the local architectural legend who befriended Wright around the same time the Bachman-Wilson House was built). Together, they designed and constructed an observatory pavilion where their students could watch and document the process for the Library of Congress. “That’s exactly what Frank Lloyd Wright would have done,” Eccleston says. “He would have put the students there, they would have tried something; if they’d failed, they would tear it apart, they’d start it all back over.”
His own team may not have had that luxury, but the finished home falls within a charming margin of Wright’s perfection. As Faber puts it, “It looks simple, but there’s so much detail in it. It’s not as simple as it appears to keep everything aligned the way it’s supposed to be.”
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Bachman-Wilson House opens to the public at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, on November 11, 2015.