Labor Of Love

A New Jersey architectural team painstakingly restores—over a twenty-year period—a classic Frank Lloyd Wright gem of a house.

A wall of 10-foot doors and windows admits maximum daylight. The transoms above, called clerestory perforated boards, are unique to each home Wright designed.
Photo by Jeffrey Totaro.

When Sharon and Lawrence Tarantino discovered an original Frank Lloyd Wright house in Millstone, it was love at first sight.

Love was complicated, though, by the home’s decrepit state—buckets were scattered to collect leaking water and thick layers of paint covered the original Philippine mahogany. Clearly, years of neglect had taken their toll.

In the two decades since they bought the home—one of four original Frank Lloyd Wright homes in the state—the couple has meticulously restored it to its original brilliance: a compact home made seemingly large by the open floor plan, soaring window walls, and seamless extension of the interior space to the outdoors. “Living here is a gift,” says Sharon. “It’s like we’re living in nature.”  The Tarantinos’ efforts were acknowledged late last year with an award from the New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects—the first-ever AIA Preservation Merit Award.

“It’s high time we recognize this type of work,” says Michael Califati, principal of Historic Building Architects in Trenton and chairman of the AIA-NJ Historic Resources Committee. Acknowledging that the Tarantinos carefully researched Wright’s original plans for the house, built in 1954, Califati adds, “They came up with a very sensitive approach to the restoration. They made sure they did everything right.”

The Long Journey

The Tarantinos twenty-year odyssey to restore the home—commonly referred to as the Bachman-Wilson house after its original owners—began when they persuaded the previous owner to sell. They are only the fourth owners of the house, designed and built while Wright was based in the East, working on the Guggenheim Museum. (Much of Wright’s work is in his native Midwest.)

The design focuses on the continuity between the indoors and outdoors and shows an awareness of sustainable elements, a novel idea for the mid-1950s. Inspired by the flat Midwestern plains, coupled with distinct touches of Japanese architecture, the small house (under 2,000 square feet) has dramatic cantilevered roofs and balconies, and large expanses of glass windows and doors that let light and views of nature flow into the living space.

It’s the feeling of communing with nature that first attracted the Tarantinos. “The scenery is constantly changing,” says Sharon, noting the south-facing window walls provide total privacy, but also views of the Millstone River just a stone’s throw away, along with a steady parade of wildlife roaming the dense woods.
Restoring the house brought special challenges to the architect-design team.  The couple lived in the house throughout the restoration process. In fact, they maintained their architectural studio there while restoring a 250-year-old timber-framed barn from Vermont. The barn was relocated just a few feet away from the Wright house on the original foundation of the Millstone House Inn and barn. Despite the disparate design styles, the two structures coexist quite naturally on the property. (The barn was also recognized by the AIA as part of the couple’s preservation undertaking.)

Preserving a Frank Lloyd Wright house is a never-ending project, but the Tarantinos don’t mind.  “It is so enriching to us because we’re in the profession. It’s not a big glamour house, but it has a lot of design elements that architects use today,” says Sharon. For instance, the original concrete floors (restored to a deep brick red) are heated from below with radiant heat. The 10-foot-high French doors of the living room face south, admitting maximum light. There are no nails and virtually no wasted scraps (much of the
furniture is made from the leftover plywood).

“The home is all about organic architecture, which Wright taught us, and many are just starting to understand today with green building,” Lawrence says.

“This award redirects us back to what architecture should achieve,” says Califati. “This is a compact house for sure, but it is compacted with environmental sensitivity.” Today’s design edict calls for treading lightly, adds Califati. “Don’t build anything bigger than you need; take full advantage of the natural light.” That’s what Wright did, so many years ago.

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