2/2013: After severe flooding during Hurricane Sandy, the owners have renewed their ongoing effort to relocate the Bachman-Wilson House. The New York Times reports that they are now discussing, among various options, dismantling the house and relocating it to Florence, Italy for reconstruction.
One of only four documented Frank Lloyd Wright houses in New Jersey, the Bachman Wilson House in Millstone is a rare and quintessential mid twentieth-century landmark.
In 1954, when Gloria Bachman and Abraham Wilson selected a location on the Millstone River for a residence, they engaged Frank Lloyd Wright to design their home. At the time, Gloria Bachman’s brother was a Wright apprentice. The couple visited a project on which he was working, the Shavin House in Tennessee, and quickly settled on Wright as the preferred architect for their home. Upon accepting this commission to design a modest dwelling, Wright wrote the Wilsons, “I suppose I am still here to try to do houses for such as you.”
The Bachman Wilson House is a “Usonian,” Wright’s term for architecturally distinct yet cost-conscious house designs, which he first promulgated during the Great Depression. Wright designed a compact house for the Wilsons, with dramatic cantilevered roofs and balconies. Its open floor plan and soaring glass window walls which maximize natural light make it seem larger than its actual dimensions. The glass walls also afford Wright’s signature feel of being close to nature: in this case, arguably too close. The property lies in a floodplain and is subject to continual inundation by the very river that defines the site.
When the current owners purchased the property in 1988, it was in a state of ill repair largely rooted in damage from the previous flooding. Over 23 years, the current owners have painstakingly restored the house, using original construction documents from the Frank Lloyd Wright Archives. They have both preserved and restored historic elements and realized original elements of the Wright design that had previously been altered or eliminated. The restoration has been celebrated: in 2008, the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy awarded the project the Wright Spirit Award, and in 2009, the New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects created a Preservation Merit Award to recognize their achievement.
Soon after completion of an extensive round of renovations in 1999, the area was hit by Hurricane Floyd. The first floor was underwater then and has been repeated in subsequent years. Numerous federal and state agencies, including the Army Corps of Engineers, Natural Resources Conservation Service, New Jersey Water Supply Authority, and the Department of Environmental Protection, are involved in flood damage reduction and ecosystem restoration efforts in the Millstone River basin, but none seem likely to alleviate the problem at the Bachman Wilson house. There is an indication that flooding on the property is increasing both in intensity and frequency, threatening the house itself and its viability as a residence. Citing their protracted battle with floodwaters, the owners recently announced that they are considering putting the house on the market after relocating it to a lot of Houses at Sagaponac, an “in progress” development of modern residences in Sagaponack, New York. However, they are open to other potential relocation sites.
Anytime a building is removed from its original setting, it loses context, negatively impacting its historic integrity. Preservation New Jersey applauds the restoration of this house and recognizes that not acting to protect the house in the near future will jeopardize its long-term survival. We hope that all means of saving this landmark on or near its current site may not yet be exhausted. The owner has considered a number of site modifications, and Preservation New Jersey wants to ensure that these are all fully explored. If relocation is the only viable course of action, this distinctive building, the work of one of the twentieth century’s greatest architects, should remain on a site as comparable as possible to the original in setting, orientation, and geography.
Preservation New Jersey