When Saving an Endangered Wright Home Requires Relocating It ... To Italy

Photo: Tarantino Architects via Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy listing.

A Frank Lloyd Wright residence in Millstone, N.J., one of only four documented Wright-designed homes in the Garden State, is currently on the market with an asking price of $950,000, furnishings included. A classic two-bedroom Usonian home built with natural materials and featuring radiant floor heating, passive solar design, clerestory windows, and not an attached garage in sight, the Bachman Wilson House, true to Wright’s overriding design philosophy, melds harmoniously into its bucolic natural surroundings.

Well, in this case, the 1954 home is a bit too intimate with Mother Nature as it has suffered extensive damage over the years due to its otherwise lovely location on the banks of the flood-prone Millstone River. And its current preservation-minded owners are firm in the belief that as climate change intensifies and the threat of future flooding grows worse, the only feasible scenario is to completely relocate the landmark home to higher ground ... specifically higher ground in the hills above Florence. And no, they aren't thinking 30 minutes away in the South Jersey township of Florence.

As absurd as it may seem, the plot to deconstruct the endangered structure, ship it to Genoa, and then reassemble it brick by concrete brick in the sleepy, olive grove-dotted Tuscan village of Fiesole — the same sleepy, olive grove-dotted Tuscan village where, not so coincidentally, Wright found himself holed up with his mistress after fleeing the Chicago suburbs circa 1910 — has full backing from the generally relocation-weary Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy. The Conservancy does support relocation in last-resort scenarios, and owners Lawrence and Sharon Tarantino have made it abundantly clear that if their home for the past 25 years stays put, it will ultimately meet an untimely demise at the hands of the Millstone River.

“The flooding has become worse over the past few years, and we realized that the only alternative to save the house was to move it," explains Sharon Tarantino, who, along with her husband, have won acclaim from both the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy and the American Institute of Architects for their careful restoration of the home. In 1999, the home was inundated by floodwaters unleashed by Hurricane Floyd and has been damaged by subsequent floods as well. (And typical of Wright homes, there have also been some serious leaky roof issues.)

So why Fiesole, aside from the scandalous connection to Wright?

Although a plot to relocate the two-story (somewhat of a rarity for a Usonian model), 2,800-square-foot home to a modernist enclave in the Hamptons was in the cards just a couple of years ago, Sharon Tarantino tells the New York Times: “We are pursuing various options, but Italy attracts us the most. My husband and I studied in Genoa 40 years ago, so it is the romantic solution.”

This is where Italian architect Paolo Bulletti comes into the picture.

Bulletti was brought on by the Tarantinos — the couple are both architects and Wright restoration experts — as the exclusive Italian agent to “research buyers for the relocation of their property,” a relocation process with an estimated price tag of $1.5 million. The price of the home itself is included in this figure; however, the cost to rebuild the structure once shipped to Genoa and transported to Fiesole is not.

The Tarantinos first sought Bulletti out after learning of a Wright exhibition that he curated in Fiesole in celebration of the late architect’s 100th birthday. They traveled to Italy to see if he’d be interested in taking the home off of their hands and moving it to the hills of Tuscany.

"At first I thought the idea was silly, but it was such a cultural challenge that we decided to get together," Bulletti tells the Times. "We obviously met in Fiesole and had a lunch under the trees of the piazza. It was summer and immediately we found a lot of mutual interests and shared the same visions. We walked up the hill to the house where Wright spent his time in Fiesole and discussed all the details."

Relocation risks aside, there are a couple of major catches involved with the plan.

First off, the economic climate in Italy isn’t exactly healthy at the moment — securing private or public funding for the project could prove to be difficult. However, Bulletti is confident that interested parties will come through: "We have been contacted by businessmen and art lovers and are currently following up with these people," he says.

And then there’s this: the home can’t be used as a private residence once rebuilt in Fiesole due to strict housing laws. "But it can be erected in protected land, a park or a garden as if it were a sculpture," claims Bulletti.

Whatever the case, the possibility of relocating the Bachman Wilson House to Italy is an intriguing choice not only because of logistics.

As pointed out by Steve Rose at The Guardian, deep-pocketed Americans in the 20th century were in the habit of buying storied European structures, shipping them overseas, and rebuilding them stateside.

Rose points out that the reverse "could represent some kind of karmic payback for America's past architecture-shopping." Rose notes: "Then again, the house is a fine example of Wright's pioneering ‘Usonian’ style, which sought to forge a specifically American identity, distinct from European precedents. Wright would doubtless be spinning in his [empty] grave at the irony."

Those familiar with the Bachman Wilson House: Do you think the "romantic solution" of moving the home from a New Jersey floodplain to the hills of Tuscany to save it from future damage it too audacious, even desperate? Should it stay in the states and continue on as a functional home? Or if Italian funding for rebuilding — and a buyer willing to pay for the house and relocation costs — does indeed emerge, do you think it could work?