My late brother-in-law Bob Smith grew up in a Frank Lloyd Wright house. His father, Melvyn Smith (Smithy) had taken a humanities course in college at Detroit’s Wayne State U. When a slide of a Frank Lloyd Wright house appeared on a screen, he jumped up in the middle of class and declared, “Someday I’m going to have one.”
Pretty big ambition as Smithy and wife Sara were both elementary school teachers. But they “scrimped and saved,” my sister says. While traveling in Wisconsin, they visited Taliesin, Wright’s home and studio and met Smithy’s idol.
“All white from the tip of his head to the tip of his toes,” Sara recalled. Wright was in residence and they met him. Smithy confessed his dream and that the couple had been saving up.
“How much can you afford?” Wright asked.
Not enough for him to build the house, Wright said. But he’d design a plan for them; Smithy could oversee construction. Wright advised him to find property no else one wanted, so it would be affordable. The couple found a swampy piece of land in Bloomfield Hills, MI, near the prestigious Cranbrook Schools and Art Academy. They sent the lot plan and topographic info to the legendary architect. In the 1950s, Wright was designing Usonian (abbreviation of United States of North America) homes of mass-produced materials like concrete block and plywood. He sent Smithy a plan. Smithy served as general contractor, working hands-on after school and on weekends. In a few years, the house got built.
Never was a home more loved.
When Smithy died, son Bob, who’d moved to California years before, created a foundation to oversee the house. When Bob died, his widow, Anne, became responsible. The house required costly renovation. The Towbes Foundation (belonging to Anne’s late second husband, Michael Towbes) took over the stewardship of the Smith House and restored it beautifully.
So, the reason for this preamble…
Because I admire and sometimes collect contemporary art, art destinations top my bucket list. Among them: Crystal Bridges, the new Moshe Safdie designed museum in Bentonville, AR, largely funded by Sam Walton’s daughter Alice.
And Marfa, TX, the desert town adopted by minimalist artist Donald Judd in the 1970s.
My sister, who belongs to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, sent me an email. SBMA was planning a trip to Bentonville and Marfa. “Sounds like something you’d like,” she said.
Would I!!! We signed up.
Anne’s taste is more traditional. She agreed to the trip for me. But a Godsign occurred for her. We discovered Crystal Bridges had restored a Frank Lloyd Wright Usonian house from NJ and installed it on their grounds. The knowledgeable assistant curator who wrote a book on the project, Dylan Turk, was our tour guide. The Bachman-Wilson House is remarkably similar to the Smith House. I kept elbowing my rapt sister, as Turk revealed details that described the Smith House, down to the built-in seating, the vertical stacked lamp in the living room and the placement of the baby grand piano.
After his talk, my sister asked Turk if he knew there was an FLW Usonian house in Bloomfield Hills, MI. “Of course,” he said. “The Smith House.”
“This is Anne Smith!” I exclaimed. He beamed at my sister. “You’re Anne Smith?” You’d think he’d just met Angelina Jolie.
Aside from loving art, I’m a house nut. In all the homes I featured when I worked as a design editor, I never heard a story like that of the inspiration for the Bachman-Wilson House. Marvin Bachman was a young architecture student. In 1950, he became a Fellow at Taliesin. The next year, Marvin was killed in a car accident. His sister, Gloria Wilson, was devastated. She’d been very close to her brother. They’d visited museums and attended operas together and even shared a road trip visiting Wright’s homes.
Gloria and husband Abe drove to TN to see Wright’s Shavin House on which Marvin had been working. To Gloria, the house was Marvin’s legacy. She and her husband stayed to work on the house and helped the Shavins move in.
In memory of Gloria’s brother, the Wilsons asked Wright to design a house for them on a river in the pre-Revolutionary village of Millstone, NJ, south of Manhattan. The site was once occupied by a historic inn, burned in 1928 after being purchased by a Jewish family. Anti-Semitism still festered when the Wilsons, who were Jewish, were building. During construction, someone wrote in the dust on the back of Abe’s car, “Dirty Jews—Get out of town.”
But the house was built, and the Wilsons lived there happily. The baby grand Steinway piano in the living room had belonged to Marvin, an accomplished pianist. The Wilsons’ daughter Chana began playing at 8. She and fellow students gave regular recitals in the house.
After enduring 4 owners and many floods, the house has been moved 1200+ miles to Crystal Bridges’ grounds and meticulously restored. The Bachman-Wilson House debuted to the public on 11.11.15, 4 years to the day after the museum itself opened: 11.11.11. The name of the surprisingly good restaurant in the museum: Eleven.
(Bonus Godsign: My sister considers the number 11 good luck. Alice Walton must agree. Anne says when you notice 11:11 on a clock, an angel is thinking of you. The number of Anne’s NY apartment: 1111.)
Crystal Bridges has upped the game for Bentonville. The museum building, spanning a river, is an architectural masterpiece. An uber cool 21c Hotel opened nearby and displays challenging contemporary art. Restaurants are good and shop owners credit the museum for the upsurge in tourism to this tiny town in northwest Arkansas. Nearby, a transcendent chapel by noted Arkansas architect Fay Jones rises from the woods. At Crystal Bridges our group bumped into Alice Walton 3 times. She often escorts friends through the museum and enjoys welcoming strangers.
The Smith house is now affiliated with the Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, which arranges tours.
Wright believed a home should complement nature and possess what he called “soul.” The chapter on the origins of the Bachman-Wilson House concludes with a passage on its significance. “Designed in the last yet most productive years of Wright’s life, the house represents the awakening of American architecture, the evolution of the American idea of home, and the profound influence one person can have on the architectural identity of an entire nation.”
If you enjoy traveling, you’ve no doubt found the experience is full of good and bad surprises. Discovering the Bachman-Wilson House was a happy one indeed. Brava, Alice, and the team that brought this terrific home back to life. And thanks, Anne and the capable staff and members of of SBMA, for including me in a fine adventure.