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The Bachman-Wilson House: What is a Usonian House?

Bachman Wilson House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.  ©Tarantino Studio 2013

Bachman Wilson House designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. ©Tarantino Studio 2013

Bachman-Wilson House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo credit: Tarantino Studio ©2013, courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR

Bachman-Wilson House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Photo: TarantinoSTUDIO © 2014

The recently acquired Bachman-Wilson House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is a classic example of what Wright called a “Usonian House.”  The word Usonian was coined by James Duff Law, a writer in the early part of the twentieth century who claimed: “We of the United States, in justice to Canadians and Mexicans, have no right to use the title ‘Americans’ when referring to matters pertaining exclusively to ourselves.”  He suggested that instead, citizens of the United States should be called “Usonans” or “Usonians,” which was derived from an abbreviation of “United States of North America.”

Bachman-Wilson House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo: TarantinoSTUDIO © 2014

Bachman-Wilson House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Photo: TarantinoSTUDIO © 2014

Frank Lloyd Wright embraced this idea, as he embraced the idea of developing a distinctly American style of architecture.  During the Great Depression, Wright latched onto the idea of creating simple, low-cost houses that would be within the reach of the average middle class American (or Usonian) family.  The houses he designed were generally of one story, built of natural materials on a concrete slab.  The kitchens small and open to the living areas, which were relatively large and fitted with glass curtain walls that provided expansive views of the outdoors.  Much of the furniture was built in, to save space, and the homes had several features we now think of as “green”—radiant-heat flooring, roofs with large overhangs to provide for passive solar heating, and clerestory windows for natural light. They also had a large overhang to shelter the family car:  a feature Wright dubbed a “car port.”  The houses have a characteristic low profile,  often presenting a rather blank façade to the street, but opening up to views at the back.  Wright described the Usonian House as “a thing loving the ground with the new sense of space, light, and freedom – to which our U.S.A. is entitled.”

About 60 Usonian homes were built, the first in 1936. Wright originally hoped that homeowners could construct the homes themselves, but in reality, most of them required more expert craftsmanship to install the board-and-batten interiors, built-in furniture, and distinctly “Wrightian,” if spare, decorative touches.

In 1945, Wright was instrumental in designing a whole community of Usonian homes in Pleasantville, New York, where a group of friends purchased land and enlisted Wright’s help in planning their own utopian enclave. The wooded community features 47 homes, only three of which were actually designed by Wright, though the plans for all the homes were inspected and approved by him. The community was named Usonia Home, and some of the original residents are there still, while others have passed their homes on to a second generation of Usonians.

Deconstruction of the Bachman-Wilson House underway. Bachman-Wilson House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Photo:  Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR

Deconstruction of the Bachman-Wilson House underway. Bachman-Wilson House, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Photo: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR

The Bachman-Wilson House is in the process of being carefully dismantled under the direction of its former owners, architect/designer team Sharon and Lawrence Tarantino.  Later in the spring the parts will be transported to Bentonville and the house will be reconstructed at a site on Crystal Bridges’ grounds overlooking Crystal Spring.  In celebration of the Bachman-Wilson House, this spring and summer the Museum is offering a host of architecture-based programming, including presentations by architects Moshe Safdie and Sharon and Lawrence Tarantino.  We will also be featuring regular updates here in the Crystal Bridges blog about the progress of the project.

Linda DeBerry
Senior Copy Editor / Publications Manager

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