The Texas Town of Crawford is about as far
from Washington D.C., as a Man could Hope to Get
by Eric O'Keefe
now the stories of over-indulgence are yesterday's news. When
the longest and strongest bull market in the history of the
United States peaked in the late 1990s, the number of newly
minted millionaires and billionaires seemed unendingas
did their excesses. Gulfstreams replaced Hummers as the ride
of choice, $20,000 dinners became cocktail party fodder, and
the concept of a second home was upgraded to include third,
fourth, and fifth locations.
But in 1999 when Governor George W. Bush gave architect David
Heymann a list of design priorities for the new ranch house
that he and his wife sought to build, the Texan's top three
requests were anything but extravagant: a king-sized bed, a
good shower, and some comfortable chairs on the porch.
The ranch retreat is a presidential tradition that dates back
long before Camp David. Ronald Reagan's Rancho del Cielo and
LBJ's Pedernales spread are only the most recent incarnations
of a Western connection to the White House that began with Teddy
Roosevelt. It was 1883 when a 24-year-old TR first set foot
in Little Missouri, a soon-to-be-forgotten cowtown in the Dakota
Territory. Intent on overcoming his physical frailties, Roosevelt
spent two weeks in the region on his first foray. By the time
he left, he had bagged not only a bison but also a stake in
the Maltese Cross Ranch.
was the first of two cattle operations the Knickerbocker would
buy into, and the years he spent ranching, hunting, and scouting
the "Bad Lands" would serve him well up San Juan Hill and into
the White House. In Roosevelt's words, "The farther one gets
into the wilderness, the greater is the attraction of its lonely
A century later, one of Roosevelt's successors finds similar
solace in the Lone Star State among the live oaks and limestone
canyons of McLennan County. The Bushes' now-traditional August
hiatus on their ranch outside Crawford is as much an attempt
at normalcy as it is a working vacation with visits by foreign
dignitaries and heads of state, regular gatherings with White
House staffers and Cabinet members, and some good, old-fashioned
"I want to stay in touch with real Americans," said the President
to a crowd of Crawford residents shortly after the 2001 inaugural
ceremonies. As the locals knew, the President and the First
Lady had already put those plans in motion several years earlier
by purchasing a spread in the heart of "real America" during
his second term as governor of Texas. Flush with a $14.9-million
profit from the sale of the Texas Rangers in 1998, the couple
had set out in search of a retreat within easy driving distance
of the Governor's Mansion in Austin. When the Bushes came across
a 1,550-acre tract 20 miles west of Waco just outside the town
of Crawford (population 701), they took a second look.
For more than a century much of the land along this stretch
of Prairie Chapel Road had been owned by members of
a pioneering German family, the Engelbrechts. This particular
parcel belonged to Bennie and Earlene Engelbrecht. The couple
was getting well on in years and had listed the property for
sale for almost four years. It took less than four months for
the Bushes to close the deal, for an estim-ated $1.3 million.
Well watered by Rainey Creek and the Middle Bosque River, much
of the ranch features the gently rolling terrain that makes
this section of Central Texas ideal for farming wheat, maize,
and corn. One of the Bushes' first decisions as owners was to
continue to run cattle on their ranch; the grass lease was awarded
to none other than Kenneth Engelbrecht, Bennie and Earlene's
more momentous undertakingthe design and construction
of a new home for the Busheswould begin during George
Walker Bush's gubernatorial tenure and be completed only after
his presidential inauguration. Their choice of Austin architect
David Heymann revealed a commitment to build a house that fit
naturally into the landscape.
"The Bushes told me they had this beautiful piece of land and
they wanted the house to add to the land, not disrupt it," says
Heymann, an associate dean of architecture at the University
of Texas. "Given the complexity of their lives, they wanted
a place where they could feel grounded. They wanted to be in
the land and related to it."
To this end, Heymann traveled to Crawford with the couple and
spent much time siting the residence and designing the layout.
According to Heymann, the four-bedroom home was planned so that
"every room has a relationship with something in the landscape
that's different from the room next door. Each of the rooms
feels like a slightly different place."
The resulting single-story ranch house, which was built by members
of a religious community from the nearby community of Elm Mott,
is a paragon of environmental planning.
The passive-solar house is built of honey-colored native limestone
and positioned to absorb winter sunlight, warming the interior
walkways and walls of the 4,000-square-foot residence. Geothermal
heat pumps circulate water through pipes buried 300 feet deep
in the ground. These waters pass through a heat exchange system
that keeps the home warm in winter and cool in summer.
A 25,000-gallon underground cistern collects rainwater gathered
from roof urns; wastewater from sinks, toilets, and showers
cascades into underground purifying tanks and is also funneled
into the cistern. The water from the cistern is then used to
irrigate the landscaping around the four-bedroom home. Laura
Bush insisted on the use of indigenous grasses, shrubs, and
flowers to complete the exterior treatment of the home.
In addition to its minimal environmental impact, the look and
layout of the new ranch house reflect one of the Bushes' paramount
priorities: relaxation. A spacious 10-foot porch wraps completely
around the residence and beckons the family outdoors.
With few hallways to speak of, family and guests make their
way from room to room either directly or by way of the porch.
Heymann says, "The house doesn't hold you in. Where the porch
ends there is grass. There is no step-up at all."
Although the layout and design of the Bushes' home creates a
relaxing, laid- back setting, life on the First Ranch is anything
President is a tried and true early riserbe it in Washington
or on the ranch. Trips to Crawford, however, afford him liberties
unavailable at the White House or even at Camp David. His daily
workout is a prime example. In comparison with the monotony
of the White House jogging tracka quarter-mile circuit
around the South Lawnthe roads and trails on the ranch's
1,550 acres are a runner's paradise. Given the opportunity,
the President works out six days a week. And that's before chores.
There's a touch of the Reaganesque to Mr. Bush's gung-ho attitude
for clearing out the dense brush thickets on the ranch, and
taking the wheel of his pickup to tool around the ranch is a
luxury the President of the United States rarely savors. (For
reasons of security and protocol, the Secret Service chauffeurs
the President and the First Lady on almost every conceivable
Although the rigors of running the United States follow him
to Crawford, the President routinely works in a round of golf
on nearby links or wets a hook in one of the ranch's man-made
As at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the Bushes relish time spent
with friends and family. Gatherings at the ranch, official and
otherwise, tend to be quite informal, with suit and tie replaced
by short-sleeved shirts and jeans.
David Heymann credits the President with this easygoing feel.
"He wanted it to be very relaxed. The way he described it, he
wanted a house for people to come over, sit on the couch, and
eat hamburgers and beans with their shoes off."
The Editors wish to thank the White House Media Office
for their research assistance. Portions of this article were
also compiled from the archives of the Chicago Tribune,
Houston Chronicle, The New York Times, Runner's World, USA Today,
and The Washington Post.
A TEXAS VISION IN THE OVAL OFFICE
the end of a long and productive life, the artist Tom
Lea reflected on the fact that his paintings were generally
not displayed for public view, but rather in the homes
of friends. He considered his work a kind of personal
conversation with his friends, and that pleased him.
By the time Tom Lea passed away in January 2001, at the
age of 93, those friends included the 43rd President of
the United States and the First Lady as well as thousands
of admirers inspired by his paintings and books. Some
knew his public murals of the 1930s; others his World
War II paintings published in Life magazine. Many
read his best-selling novels, The Brave Bulls and
The Wonderful Country, and his history of The King
Ranch; still others enjoyed the paintings he made of the
great Southwest. Rarely did anyone have an inkling of
the magnitude of his output. It is rare to find an artist
to whom painting and writing are complementary.
Laura Bush traveled to meet Tom Lea and his wife, Sarah,
soon after her husband was elected Governor of Texas in
1994. She understood Lea's stature. Her grandparents had
lived in El Paso, so she knew Lea's 1938 Pass of the
North mural in the Federal Courthouse and Southwest
mural in the El Paso Public Library. A voracious reader,
she had read his books and, as the daughter of a veteran,
was familiar with his work as a war correspondent.
Laura Bush wanted her husband to know the Leas, so she
invited them to Austin. In addition to a night at the
Governor's Mansion, a dinner was held that included Lady
Bird Johnson, a longtime Lea friend. Governor Bush topped
off the evening by reading his favorite parts of Tom
Lea, An Oral History for all the dinner guests.
Laura Bush later found a Tom Lea quote in his autobiography
that she shared with her husband. It struck a chord with
the Governor, providing words that expressed his hopeful
outlook: "Sarah and I live on the east side of our mountain.
It is the sunrise side, not the sunset side. It is the
side to see the day that is coming, not the side to see
the day that is gone. The best day is the day coming ..."
Governor Bush often used this quote during his Texas tenure.
He also shared it in his speech when accepting the Republican
nomination for President of the United States.
After his election in 2000, George W. Bush asked his wife
to select a Tom Lea oil painting for the Oval Office.
Tom Lea was weak and blind at the time, but it brought
him great happiness to know that his work spoke to his
friend. When Lea died last year, hundreds of friends attended
his memorial service, including the First Lady of the
United States. Soon after, the El Paso Museum of Art received
a call from the White House requesting the loan of Rio
Grande, a desert landscape that speaks of space, sun,
cloud, rock, mountain, sand, and the life that springs
from rocky soil.
Sarah Lea was invited to be a guest at the White House
a year after her husband's passing. When greeted in the
family quarters, the President told her, "I sure like
looking at your husband's painting every day." The personal
conversations between the work of Tom Lea and his friends
Adair Margo Gallery of El Paso has been the exclusive
representative of the work of Tom Lea since 1993. Adair
Margo is the co-editor of Tom Lea, An Oral History (Texas
Cowboys & Indians