March 7, 2008

For the People: Preserving Wright’s Usonian Houses

by Sharon Tarantino
Tarantino Architect

Summary: Tarantino Architect has been focusing much of our time working on the preservation of Frank Lloyd Wright’s work from the mid-20th Century era, primarily Usonian Houses. This specialization began with the stewardship of our own Usonian, the Bachman-Wilson House, ca.1954. Since then we have consulted and managed construction on many others. As these structures are mostly residences, over a period of 50 to 75 years they have suffered decay. Because the radiant heating systems Wright pioneered were somewhat experimental at the time, it has become the most serious and important comfort feature to maintain—the life-blood of the house. Other challenges have included the color hardener and finish surface treatment for the concrete mats; thermal moisture protection concerns for the membrane roofs, tern metal, and flashing; mortar color and brick reproduction; restoring exterior and interior wood finishes, as well as furniture, lighting, and fabrics; and upgrading mechanical systems within limited space constraints.

Bachman House
Millstone, N.J.
In 1988, Sharon and Lawrence Tarantino acquired the neglected Bachman-Wilson House, ca. 1954, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Tarantino Architect guided the complete restoration and rebuilt the kitchen according to Wright's original drawings. Additionally, furnishings have been restored and rebuilt with 1950s upholstery fabrics selected appropriate for the house and the period. The house is sited along the Millstone River and is a 20th Century contributing structure in the National Historic District of the Borough of Millstone. This mid-‘50s Usonian is one of the purest of Wright's designs of this period, with regard to a culmination of his long-prolific design philosophy: a work of art in simplicity and form, unencumbered by programmatic constraints. The project captured a Cultural and Heritage Commission Preservation Award from Somerset County, N.J.

Christie House
Somerset County, N.J.
The original house designed in 1940 by Frank Lloyd Wright is an early 2-foot x 4-foot grid Usonian plan constructed of cypress, brick, concrete mat, and glass. Research has indicated that Wright conceived a preliminary design for a future master bedroom suite on the bedroom wing, but it was never realized by the original owners. Tarantino Architect was commissioned to provide architectural services for executing this master bedroom suite and completing the house. Great care has been taken to match the original brick, cypress, and window details and to provide proper instructions and supervision on construction of the concrete mat with radiant heat, as well as supervision on the entire project.

Richardson House
Essex County, N.J.
Designed in 1941 and built in 1951, the Richardson House is a rare example of Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian houses based on a hexagon unit module. An oasis in the middle of a suburban landscape, the house was constructed of red brick, cypress wood, red concrete mat, and glass. Over the past 10 years, the current owners have embarked on restoring the house, which included the kitchen, bathrooms, and hydronic radiant heat floor mat, as well as the doors and windows. This past summer, the challenge was rehabilitation of the existing membrane roof and the replacement of the decaying soffit and fascia around the entire house. Careful research of the original drawings and suitable old-growth Tidewater red cypress provided vital information in developing a strategic plan.

Hanna House
Stanford University, Calif.
The Hanna House, ca.1936, is a National Historic Trust Landmark. Recognized as a defining departure for Frank Lloyd Wright with his Usonian House, it exemplifies the California style with cascading terrace levels around and through the house. Also known as the Honeycomb House, the structure is based on an expansion of hexagon unit modules, which is perhaps the most significant element of the house and Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian house theory. In 1975, Stanford Professor Paul Hanna and his wife, Jean, specialists in childhood education, donated the house to Stanford University to be used for educational purposes. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake severally damaged several parts of the house, including the concrete slab. After several years of restoration and in an effort to open the house to the public again, Tarantino Architect was selected to undertake an extensive study to rectify the problem and determine appropriate concrete mat restoration through background history, product research and specification, hands-on testing, and documentation.

Kessler House
Essex County, N.J.
The Kessler House—designed in 1967 by Frank Lloyd Wright apprentice John Rattenbury with Wesley Peters, Taliesin Architects—is an elegantly detailed house constructed of Roman brick, precast concrete, patterned terne metal, and terrazzo floors. Every aspect of the interior had been custom designed, including light fixtures, furniture, and teak casework. The house has now begun to be restored to its original splendor. A detailed list of priorities has been developed to begin the task of restoration. Interior changes over the years were not always respectful to the original design, in which Olgivanna Wright had been involved specifying fabrics and carpeting with the owners. A palette of finish samples and details are now being selected sympathetic to the original intent. There is also a treehouse on the grounds, originally designed by Rattenbury and built for the Kessler children.

thoughts and theory
big buildings
smaller scale
special issues

Sharon Tarantino and Lawrence Tarantino, AIA, are principals of Tarantino Studio, providing architecture, historic preservation, and product design services in Millstone, N.J.

“Usonia” is Frank Lloyd Wright’s abbreviation for “United States of North America.” His Usonian houses, which he began designing during the Great Depression, were cost-saving, no-frills units designed for “the common people.” He designed more than 100 of the small, one-story houses.

Photos courtesy of the architect.