Frank Lloyd Wright, Bachman-Wilson House

This building is a beautiful testament to Wright’s vision of affordable and unique domestic architecture.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Bachman-Wilson House (originally built on the bank of the Millstone River, New Jersey, now on the campus of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville), 1956. Speakers: Alan Meyer, volunteer, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Steven Zucker

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0:00:07.7 Steven Zucker: We’re on the grounds of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and we’ve just walked in to a house that used to be in New Jersey, but is now here. This is the Bachman-Wilson House.

0:00:18.2 Alan Meyer: We’ve oriented the house so that the sun travels over it as it would have in New Jersey. That’s critical to Wright’s use of the clerestory windows. That’s how he brought light in particularly on the public side of the house. That brings light in but doesn’t let you see in.

0:00:33.4 Steven Zucker: The clerestory is a signature of Wright’s domestic architecture. It’s a term that’s generally used for medieval cathedrals and although these are not stained-glass windows, they are defined by mahogany cutouts that create this decorative form that is reminiscent of that medieval precedent.

0:00:50.7 Alan Meyer: When Wright decided to do Usonian structures, he wanted to bring the cost down to where a middle-class family could afford. Stained glass is not cheap. So he came up with this idea of sandwiching a piece of glass between two wood cutouts.

0:01:05.7 Steven Zucker: Wright adopted this term, Usonia, to refer to the art and architecture of the United States.

0:01:13.3 Alan Meyer: When he went to Europe, the Europeans would look across the Atlantic, they would see North America. They referred to us as Usonians, United States of North America. Wright liked the term but didn’t start using it until after the depression and he switched gears to go to affordable homes rather than the custom-built prairie styles and he labeled them as Usonia.

0:01:35.2 Steven Zucker: And in the 1930s, in the 1940s, and especially after the second world war there was a real housing shortage and so the problem was could you build distinguished architecture that was inexpensive to produce and Wright developed a series of strategies to do this and this building is a beautiful testament to that kind of thinking.

0:01:52.8 Alan Meyer: Yes, but from a financial standpoint he didn’t hit the mark. The original owners told him they had 20,000 dollars to spend on a house. That was a mid-price house in 1953. He completed plans estimated they should be able to build it for 30,000, they took the plans to a general contractor opened them up and said how much to build our Wright home, 60,000 dollars.

0:02:15.4 Steven Zucker: And there are a lot of unique qualities to this house. The side of the building that’s facing us is quite plain but we’ve turned a corner, walked into a modest door, and we’re now in this beautiful but confined space.

0:02:28.8 Alan Meyer: You see the staircase and we’re staring down a little bit of a hallway towards a light that we’re gonna move towards.

0:02:36.4 Steven Zucker: We’re led there by horizontal lines in the concrete blocks to our left, the rhythm of the verticals of the staircase, and also just propelled because I think we want to come into a more open space. The ceiling here is quite low.

0:02:50.0 Alan Meyer: We are now in a grand space that’s about a 14-foot ceiling. I would call it the great room of the house. This is where Frank wanted you to be.

0:02:57.8 Steven Zucker: Not only is the ceiling literally twice the height, but two of the four walls are glass.

0:03:04.3 Alan Meyer: Not only is it in the wall, it also forms one of the corners. Here in this room, we can see a large-scale one so rather than having the structure end at a member or a column in the corner he pushes the columns out and ends it with glass on glass.

0:03:21.2 Steven Zucker: And it does something remarkable. From the inside, it dissolves the sense of the rectilinear. And on the outside, it allows you to see around the corner, through the house. In a sense, the house begins to vanish. Under us are these large 4×4 squares. This is concrete, this beautiful red. But underneath is a unique heating system. There are pipes here that actually allow for hot water to heat the space from the bottom up.

0:03:46.5 Alan Meyer: And it’s called radiant heating. Wright picked that up actually in Japan.

0:03:51.4 Steven Zucker: We’ve talked about the way in which these Usonian buildings were designed to be cost-efficient, but these houses also share characteristics even with the homes that Wright designed for his wealthy clientele. And one of the characteristics that is most associated with the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright is the central utilities of the building, and especially the fireplace right in the middle of the home.

0:04:15.5 Alan Meyer: Wright would include fireplaces in all his residential constructions and in this case we’re looking at one that’s in the central core of the building which is done in block it has some fire brick behind it.

0:04:28.2 Steven Zucker: And it creates a visual core for the house. It becomes a kind of architectural spine that helps to support the house.

0:04:34.3 Alan Meyer: Original spec was Roman brick which if you visualize, it’s narrower and longer than a standard brick. Wright loved Roman brick because it accentuated the horizontal line but Roman brick was expensive. After that $60,000 estimate the Wilsons had to find some economies and supposedly Gloria suggested block which Wright readily agreed to but he said the spec is going to be when the mason lays it, scarf the horizontal joint deep, fill in the vertical. So he still gets a strong horizontal line.

0:05:05.1 Steven Zucker: And you even see the emphasis on the horizontal in the board and batten that defines the horizontal of the wood of the house. You see it in the ceiling above us and you see it in the walls. This is a technique that Wright pioneered to create an inexpensive but beautiful set of surfaces that help to emphasize that horizontality that is such a clear reminder of the prairie style houses that came before. As we walk out of the living room, we round the corner which is quite narrow and we walk from the high-ceilinged living room into a transitional zone.

0:05:38.8 Alan Meyer: Just as you exit the dining corridor I guess I’d call it, you come back into a low-ceiling situation again and you’re headed for the workspace. Wright did not call it a kitchen.

0:05:49.9 Steven Zucker: And of course this is where the serious work of the house takes place. Now we should mention that the Tarantinos who were the last owners of this home were also architects and they took the preservation of this building very seriously and that is especially clear in the workspace because it has been lovingly reconstructed according to Wright’s original designs.

0:06:09.7 Steven Zucker: Let’s make our way up the stairs that had invited us in at the very beginning.

0:06:13.8 Steven Zucker: The stairs are not closed. There are no backs. It feels as if it is light and almost floating.

0:06:22.0 Alan Meyer: And it’s really held up on one side by steel rods that are threaded bottom and top and do not touch the floor, and then they seem to just hang on the wall but you can’t even see the hangers.

0:06:34.7 Steven Zucker: And this is in some ways actually a quote from one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous homes, Fallingwater, where there is a lovely hanging staircase that goes right down to the stream. So when we get to the top of the stairs, the first thing we’re treated to is a balcony that overlooks the living room. Up here are the bedrooms.

0:06:55.5 Alan Meyer: Off the balcony are actually two hallways. One goes to the child’s bedroom. On the opposite side is the second corridor that goes to the master bedroom, and sitting in the core is the master bath which is arranged in a Jack and Jill feature. There is a door off of each corridor so that the bedrooms could get to it without going out on the balcony.

0:07:17.5 Steven Zucker: And it’s worth noting that the floor of the pass-through is tiled with cork which is a lovely material because it’s warm and has a slight spring to it.

0:07:26.2 Alan Meyer: And it also has a practical feature because that floor is essentially over the workspace so it’s sound deadening as well.

0:07:33.9 Steven Zucker: We’ve walked into the master bedroom. Like the rest of the house, it’s board and batten on almost every surface with the exception of just a corner of the block and also a lovely corner of glass which opens up through double doors onto a spacious balcony.

0:07:50.5 Alan Meyer: There is also some built-ins, and the heating up here you’ll notice is a more traditional hot water wall radiator.

0:07:57.6 Steven Zucker: One of the things that has always struck me about the domestic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and I think it really comes through in this bedroom is his emphasis on privacy. You see that not only when we approach the house which is open to the back rather than the front but that the bedrooms themselves are situated as far from the living space as possible so that the house succeeds in its basic function which is privacy. We’ve walked into the other bedroom. Because of the light it actually feels quite spacious.

0:08:26.9 Alan Meyer: This was the child’s bedroom, Channah. She gets a nice glass corner. She also gets a nice set of the clear starry windows. She gets a set of operable windows and she gets quite a few built-ins.

0:08:40.9 Steven Zucker: And as private as these spaces towards the back of the house are, when you open the door from the bedrooms and look west, we have a direct view to the balcony and to the larger space of the living room.

0:08:52.5 Alan Meyer: It’s really continuation of Wright’s initial concept of open interiors.

0:08:58.8 Steven Zucker: He wanted to avoid the small closed spaces that divided what he saw as a kind of box-like house that had been inherited from the 19th century and was still being built across the U.S. Wright famously said he didn’t want his houses to sit on the land. He wanted them to be part of the land and when we look at a house like this, we see even in it’s modest scale a kind of beautiful fruition of that theory. And I feel so lucky to be here in Crystal Bridges being able to experience what Wright was able to achieve.

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Cite this page as: Alan Meyer, volunteer, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Frank Lloyd Wright, Bachman-Wilson House," in Smarthistory, June 3, 2024, accessed July 18, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/frank-lloyd-wright-bachman-wilson-house/.