Architect Lawrence Tarantino stands in his Millstone, NJ, studio workshop and gazes down on a door stretched out before him as if it were a table. With gray beard and concerned eyes, he gives the appearance of a physician studying a patient. He points to a worn corner of the door and softly mentions that it would be best to refurbish rather than replace. That way the home to which the door belongs will keep its integrity. Since the building is the Richardson House, one of the few New Jersey buildings designed by world-famous American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, it makes sense. It is also part of Tarantino’s daily routine.
Over the past quarter of a century Tarantino has become an expert in restoring buildings by Wright. Part of his ability has to do with the number of the houses for which he has provided professional work. In addition to renovating the Richardson House in Glen Ridge (Essex County) and serving as consultants through the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy, he and Sharon Tarantino, his architect wife, also participated in the move of an historic Wright house in Oregon.
But the real teacher for the couple sits approximately 100 feet from the architects’ studio: the Frank Lloyd Wright house that the Tarantinos own, have lived in for 24 years, and now reluctantly need to protect by sending it away from the spot where it was built.
The Bachman Wilson House is a product of Wright’s final and most fruitful period when he was preparing for the building of the Guggenheim Museum.
Its origins reflect the human need to live and remember.
The Wilsons were Abraham, a chemist for the New Jersey-based company Cyanamid, and Gloria, his wife. In 1950 Gloria’s brother Marvin Bachman served as an apprentice for Wright. As part of the training process, apprentices would oversee construction at a site of a Wright project, and Marvin Bachman was sent to Tennessee. There he was to supervise the building of the Shavin family residence, assist the family when they moved in, and instruct them as to how to live in the home. One did not just live in a Wright home; one subscribed to a philosophy.
When Marvin Bachman died in an automobile accident in 1951, his sister and brother-in-law went to Tennessee to serve as surrogates and assist the family with their move. During the process, the couple converted to Wright’s ideas. With plans to build a house on a 125 by 650 foot lot along a tributary of the Raritan River in Millstone (12 miles from Princeton), the Wilsons approached Wright, who was in New York City and working on the Guggenheim projject.
When the couple financed the house with a $25,000 loan, Wright began his design in 1954, and an apprentice, Morton Delson, was assigned to oversee the construction. The house was completed in 1955 for $30,000 (approximately $250,000 in today’s economy).
When the Wilsons separated in 1963, Gloria remained at the house with her daughter until 1968. Of the house that partially commemorates Gloria’s brother, Marvin Bachman, Abraham Wilson said in a New York Times interview, “building the house in Millstone was one of the great experiences of my life.”
The Bachman Wilson House is a late version of a Wright Usonian house, a simplified and — in Wright’s thinking — less expensive version of homes that evolved from Wright’s influential Prairie-style designs, buildings with large open areas and designed to blend with the American landscape.
The Usonian concept was developed during the Depression years and reflected Wright’s American and democratic ideals. The name is attributed to the British novelist Samuel Butler, whose call for a new and humanly fulfilled society appealed to the architect. “But why this term ‘America’ has become representative as the name of these United States at home and abroad is past recall. Samuel Butler fitted us with a good name. He called us Usonians, and our Nation of combined States, Usonia,” Wright wrote in 1927.
Between the mid 1930s and Wright’s death in 1959, nearly 100 Usonian houses were built.
Wright’s approach to a Usonian house was clear, if not unyielding. “No visible roof, carport — no garage, no basement, no ‘trim,’ no radiators, no light fixtures, no furniture, no pictures, just built-ins, no painting — just wood exposed, concrete floors, no plaster, no gutters or downspouts. Big living room, vista and garden coming in, open bookshelves and fireplace. The bathroom is not off of a single room. The house should be parallel to the ground. It should be grounded,” he wrote.
Wright’s proscriptions reflect his vision of what one of his homes would do for the individual inhabiting it. “Living within a house wherein everything is genuine and harmonious, a new sense of freedom gives one a new sense of life. The Usonian house, then, aims to be a natural performance, one that is integral to site; integral to environment; integral to the life of the inhabitants,” he noted in the book “The Natural House.”
The majority of Usonian residences are small, one-story structures that rest on pipe-heated concrete beds. While the formula was fixed, the approach was flexible, and Wright would adjust for living needs and the site. He also initiated the use of natural concrete block to help reduce construction costs by reducing labor.
The Bachman Wilson House is described by the Tarantinos as a pavilion with a masonry privacy wall, a two-story open floor plan, glass walls that allow for passive solar and engagement with the outdoors, and a radiant heated concrete mat that reaches beyond the interior to an extended terrace. It includes a two-story living room, dining area, workshop, two bedrooms, a guest or study room, two exterior and one interior balcony, and one and a half bathrooms.
Lawrence Tarantino says that the more time you spend in the house, the more you appreciate how well the design works. “The house has so much clarity. I think this is one of Wright’s moments of simplicity and clarity.”
The Tarantinos purchased the house in 1988 from the third owner, one not particularly friendly to the couple who stopped one day to ask about seeing the house. But the owner become more amiable when he learned that the Tarantinos were architects who could offer advice on how to address problems related to rain leakage.
Subsequent visits brought Lawrence and Sharon closer to the house and provided them with deeper knowledge about its structure and the addition that was added in the 1960s, which to the Tarantinos’ good fortune was made by someone who respected the original plan and maintained key design elements.
As the owner’s interest in the property waned, the Tarantinos’ interest grew and a deal was made. However, the house was far from being in ideal shape. While the house’s masonry, mahogany, and concrete flooring were not compromised by a recent flood and the original fixtures and materials were (and still are) present, care was crucial.
Away from the barn studio, Lawrence and Sharon Tarantino sit at a long wood table at the heart of the Bachman Wilson House. Here the 10-foot-tall wall of glass, Philippine mahogany woodwork, gray block walls, and sumac red floor blend seamlessly with the outdoors and autumn afternoon. As they have done so many times before, the two talk about the house, the past, and their plans.
“It’s our first home,” says Sharon reflectively. “We owned a small property in Princeton. But this is the first house that we lived in and purchased. We walked in here and said, ‘All right it requires a great effort,’ but we had no fear.”
“We brought it back from the dead. And a lot of effort went into it,” says Lawrence.
That effort — guided by Wright’s original drawings — included 10 years of dedicated work that resulted in a renewed building, an American Institute of Architects award for restoration, and the Tarantinos’ emergence as experts on Wright renovations.
It was not, they say, what they had initially planned.
Lawrence and Sharon Tarantino met when they were high school students in Bound Brook in 1968. Lawrence credits his jazz musician father and his touring band for awakening an awareness of musical compositions that the architect now incorporates into his discussion of physical space. Sharon’s parents were lawyers, but her mother was a visual artist who inspired her daughter.
Although they went to different parts of the country to study — she for design at Rhode Island School of Design; he for architecture at Claflin University in South Carolina — the two married in 1971. Together they received bachelor’s degrees, went to Geneo, Italy, to study architecture, and returned to New Jersey to start practicing art and architecture.
When the couple eventually settled in the Princeton area in the early 1980s, Lawrence worked with a variety of firms and individuals focusing on historic preservation. That included William Short, founding partner of Short and Ford and Partners and the individual who had been selected by Frank Lloyd Wright to oversee the construction of the Guggenheim Museum. Sharon worked as a textile artist and was engaged by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts’ education program. The couple eventually became a team, Tarantino Architects, and designed interiors for retail businesses as well as children’s furniture made of flexible materials.
At that time there was no thought of a career involving Frank Lloyd Wright houses, even though Lawrence says that when he was young he was fascinated by a school library book on one of Wright’s most famous buildings, Fallingwater in western Pennsylvania. “I looked at it so much the librarian said, ‘take it.’ But I didn’t become that interested in Wright until later.”
The word “interested” is an understatement. After living in a Frank Lloyd Wright structure for nearly a quarter of a century, he says that working with this house is “pretty much second nature.” That awareness brought the Tarantinos a Wright Spirit Award from the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy and a preservation award from the Somerset County Cultural and Heritage Commission.
Yet as much experience as the Tarantinos have in maintaining and restoring this iconic building, they are unable to address a growing threat: the Millstone River.
According to the architects, flooding was not a problem when the house was erected in 1955. But with decades of over building in the state and area, less availability of soil to absorb rain water, more runoff entering waterways, and changes in weather patterns, serious flooding is now a regular occurrence and a direct threat to the house. The problem is so great that the building was placed on Preservation NJ’s 2011 list of the state’s 10 most endangered historic sites.
“We took a lot of time to investigate mitigating the flooding, but it is useless. As the river level comes up so does the water table. Raising the house on a berm would be too high and would not pass regulations, and stilts would ruin the integrity of the design,” says Lawrence.
When Hurricane Irene brought six feet of water into the Bachman Wilson House on August 28, 2011, it was clear to the Tarantinos that to save the house they would have to sacrifice it by finding a safe site with new owners. “We don’t really see it as real estate. We look at it more as a searching for a new steward . . . to take the effort to save it,” says Sharon, as if considering options before an emergency operation.
Knowing that they may have limited time to save the house from the inevitable flood, the Tarantinos harnessed their expertise and designed a plan to sell and move the house.
The Bachman Wilson House’s calculated total enclosed or interior space is approximately 1,800 net square feet, which represents a 1,240-square-foot ground level and a 560-square-foot mezzanine. However, as the Tarantinos note, the footprint of the ground level doubles when the concrete terrace and carport areas are included.
At the mezzanine level the square footage grows from the 560 square-foot interior space to 760 square feet with the adjoining balconies off both bedrooms, totaling approximately 3,240 gross square feet.
After consulting with the FLW Building Conservancy, historic preservation professionals, and township and state officials, the Tarantinos — with the help of assistant Will Rohrbach — have developed a plan where the architects will map and number each part of the house, dismantle the structure, wrap and crate the pieces of the structure, advise on and supervise any changes regarding materials (for example the concrete blocks and concrete surfaces), and ship the parts of the building to a new location. They can also be involved in handling all logistics and codes, and then reconstruct the house on site.
A video created by the architects to illustrate the deconstruction process can be found on YouTube (http://bit.ly/T1DgZg).
Additionally, all house-related drawings by Wright, archives, blue prints, and decorative elements will come with the building.
The price for the door to door move of the Bachman Wilson House is $1.5 million. That cost includes $950,000 for the house and all furnishings, drawings, art; $550,000 is directed towards dismantling, labeling, packing, and shipping.
“Because the future site conditions are unknown, we only can estimate the cost for reconstruction to range between $800,000 and $1.2 million. Once a specific site is selected, the reconstruction cost would be accurately evaluated,” says Sharon.
But there is another consideration: the potential new owner must provide a site that maintains the house’s esthetic and functional designs.
Since the last flood — when the Tarantinos began discussing their ideas with experts and other architects — word began to get out and individuals around the country have contacted the owners to make inquiries.
Some discussions would not be considered. “The site wasn’t appropriate or the orientation of the house wasn’t right. It has to have these elements,” says Lawrence. However, talks with people with properties in the Hamptons and California are potentials. “But nothing is definite,” says Sharon.
What is definite is that the couple would like to see the house stay in New Jersey, where it was designed. The only Wright building in central New Jersey, its existence complements the presence of buildings in the Princeton-Trenton area by most of the major 20th century American architects: Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Louis Kahn, Michael Graves, Frank Gehry, Cass Gilbert, and others.
The potential cultural loss to the region is considerable.
Since Wright had designed an unrealized building in Princeton, Lawrence suggests that would be an appropriate location. Additionally, they say that it would be positive if the building became part of a public entity open to visitors of all interests.
However, by necessity, they need to consider all options. “At this point it’s fairly urgent because we don’t want to see it flooded again,” says Sharon.
If given the choice, the Tarantinos would simply leave the house where it is and continue life as they have done so for so long. After all, the couple have followed the designer’s original intent and used house as their living space, longer than any other occupant.
“We talk about moving it, but it is very emotional. We saw ourselves living here to when we die,” says Sharon.
“We’ll have other options,” Lawrence says, gazing at the table, perhaps thinking of renovations and replacements.
Or perhaps he’s just recalling the framed photograph of Wright that is displayed on an upstairs wall of the Bachman Wilson House. It has a quote that starts with the words, “Architecture is life.”
Tarantino Studio, 1423 Millstone River Road, Millstone 08844; 908-359-2443. Lawrence and Sharon Tarantino. www.tarantinostudio.com.