Central Texas, especially that sweet spot halfway between Dallas and Austin where small swaths of the legendary old prairies remain, is an earthly paradise.
Blowsy live oaks spread their heavy limbs beneath cloud-spattered skies, while creeks and rivers — most prominently the meandering Brazos — ripple alongside gently rolling pastures gilded with waving grasses.
These natural glories are precisely what led Laura and George W. Bush to choose the area for their Prairie Chapel Ranch, the retreat they completed in 2001, just after he became the 43rd president of the United States. Occupying some 1,600 acres near the flyspeck town of Crawford, about 25 miles west of Waco, the property is anchored by a strong but relatively modest home that quietly honours its location.
During the eight years Mr. Bush was in office, the ranch served as the Western White House and welcomed numerous heads of state — from Russian president Vladimir Putin to Saudi king Abdullah bin Abdulaziz — some of whom were coaxed to join the leader of the free world as he raced along the property’s 40-mile network of bike trails. And, of course, there are the well-known stories of the president spending his vacations clearing brush, often in searing heat, sometimes encouraging aides to join him.
These days the Bushes live in Dallas, also home to the George W. Bush Presidential Center, which opened last year on the campus of Southern Methodist University. But they regularly make the trip south to Crawford, where the former president is just as likely to be found handling a fishing rod or paintbrush as he is a chain saw. The ranch remains an essential getaway for the couple, a place to unwind and spend time with their daughters, Barbara Bush and Jenna Bush Hager, as well as Jenna’s family, and to entertain close friends like Deedie and Rusty Rose, prominent cultural leaders in Dallas.
In fact, it was Deedie Rose who helped the Bushes find their architect, David Heymann, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture. “Deedie and Rusty love the way David sites buildings,” says Mrs. Bush, relaxing on a shady terrace that overlooks a shimmering lake where her husband often casts lines for bass. (The largest caught to date, the former president reports, was a ten-pounder.) “So when we bought this property, Deedie told me, ‘I have your architect,’ and, of course,” she jokes, with a slightly arched eyebrow, “I always do what Deedie says.” (Rose was a member of the committee that selected Robert A.M. Stern to design the Bush center.)
The former first lady notes that when she was growing up in Midland, Texas, her father built spec houses — “one story and low to the ground, a style you saw a lot in the ’50s and ’60s.” She and Mr. Bush had a similar type of residence in mind for Crawford, mainly, she explains, “because we wanted the house to fit into the landscape.” And she means fit literally. Heymann’s design carefully nestled a single-level, three-bedroom limestone structure and an adjacent two-suite guesthouse into an almost imperceptible rise amid an existing grove of live oaks and cedar elms.
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