Bush acquired the Prairie Chapel ranch in Crawford, Texas, in 1999, and construction of the house was completed 2001. A White house press release of the time showing their lack of connection with environmentalist concerns, commended the President for his use of a gas-guzzling Gator to help clear trails through “jungly” vegetation.
The place looks its best near dusk when the light is orange in the west and pale purple in the east and deep blue in the dome of the sky. Karen P. Hughes, counselor to the president, said, Bush has put in place “responsible environmental policies” at his 1,600-acre ranch. “He has installed a very environmentally friendly heating and cooling system, and he has put in place a system to recapture groundwater.”
Rainwater and household wastewater are reused for irrigation. First lady Laura Bush, is restoring native wildflowers and grasses on the property. The only sounds are the chatter of birds and the murmur of the breeze through the leaves of live oak and cedar elm trees. A short distance from the house are clusters of vivid bluebonnets and a sparkling pond, even though watchful Secret Service agents stand guard a few hundred feet from the low-slung limestone building, and telescopes for spotting intruders are set up under trees.
In 2001, White House officials introduced a policy of having the President interviewed in carefully selected backdrops including the ranch, to make pro-environmental statements, as they hoped this would draw attention away from more contentious proposals, but the strategy was dropped as it served only to highlight the hypocrisy of the administration on this issue. For Bush is no eco-nut . Early in his presidency he angered environmentalists by rejecting a treaty to reduce global warming, suspending new limits on arsenic in drinking water and breaking a vow to cut carbon dioxide emissions by power plants. And the energy policy he unveiled on gaining office eased curbs on drilling for oil and gas on public lands.
“By marketplace standards, the house is startlingly small,” says David Heymann, the architect of the 4,000-square-foot home. “Clients of similar ilk are building 16-to-20,000-square-foot houses.”
The narrow porch stretches across the back and ends of the house. At one end, it widens into a covered patio off the living room.
The Bush ranch is the kind of place we’d all like to live. Too bad his environmental policies are moving the rest of the country in exactly the opposite direction.
The Bush administration’s 63-member energy advisory team has 62 members with ties to oil, nuclear, or coal interests. His national energy policy places nuclear power, increased oil and natural gas drilling, and “clean coal” as its cornerstone. The Bush budget takes a definitive step away from developing renewable energy resources. According to the Pew Research Center, 54 percent of Americans distrust Bush’s “muscular energy” environmental agenda. In May 2006, 22 religious leaders were arrested at the Department of Energy protesting Bush’s plan to drill for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Bush purchased the former Engelbrecht ranch while he was a candidate for the presidency, and Engelbrecht’s cattle continue to graze on the property. It is now worth about $3.5m, including the various government outbuildings and security measures. George W. says “the property is only good for grazing, and it’s pretty thin at that,”
The one-story, eight-room, ground-level house runs east and west. There are no stairs, even at entrances. There are no thresholds. For the most part, the house is one room wide, making for easy ventilation. The porch is the usual route from one room to another. A few rooms have interior doors.
“Every room has a relationship with something in the landscape that’s different from the room next door,” Heymann says. “Each of the rooms feels like a slightly different place.” In the guest bathroom, for example, when you look up from the sink, you look out on an oak tree rather than into a mirror, which is on a side wall.
“There’s a great grove of oak trees to the west that protects it from the late afternoon sun,” Heymann says. “Then there is a view out to the north looking at hills, and to the east out over a lake, and the view to the south running out to beautiful hills.”
Heymann says most of the rooms are relatively small and have high ceilings
The living-family room and the kitchen-dining room in the east end of the house are large, laid out for frequent entertaining and family gatherings. The living room has a series of glass picture doors.
The tin roof of the house extends beyond the porch. When it rains, it’s possible to sit on the patio and watch the water pour down without getting wet. Under a gravel border around the house, a concrete gutter channels the water into a 25,000-gallon cistern for irrigation. In hot weather, a terrace directly above the cistern is a little cooler than the surrounding area.
Wastewater from showers, sinks and toilets goes into purifying tanks underground — one tank for water from showers and bathroom sinks, which is so-called “gray water,” and one tank for “black water” from the kitchen sink and toilets. The purified water is funneled to the cistern with the rainwater. It is used to irrigate flower gardens, newly planted trees and a larger flower and herb garden behind the two-bedroom guesthouse. Water for the house comes from a well.
The Bushes installed a geothermal heating and cooling system, which uses about 25% of the electricity that traditional heating and air-conditioning systems consume. Several holes were drilled 300 feet deep, where the temperature is a constant 67 degrees. Pipes connected to a heat pump inside the house circulate water into the ground, then back up and through the house, heating it in winter and cooling it in summer. The water for the outdoor pool is heated with the same system, which proved so efficient that initial plans to install solar energy panels were cancelled.
The features are environment-friendly, but the reason for them was practical — to save money and to save water, which is scarce in this dry, hot part of Texas.
Heymann argued that a swimming pool would interrupt the stark landscape. After all, the house is meant to be an integral part of the land. But the twins wanted a swimming pool. “I kept fighting that, but it happened,” he says, acknowledging that his wishes didn’t stand a chance. President Bush calls it “the whining pool” — whine long enough and you get it.
. The materials used to build the house were relatively inexpensive. Factory-built roof trusses were shipped in and nailed into place. Most of the floors are concrete. The white roof is galvanized tin.
The walls are built from discards of a local stone called Leuders limestone, which is quarried in the area. The 12-to-18-inch-thick stone has a mix of colors on the top and bottom, with a cream- colored center that most people want.
“They cut the top and bottom of it off because nobody really wants it,” Heymann says. “So we bought all this throwaway stone. It’s fabulous. It’s got great color and it is relatively inexpensive.”
“We’ve got a lot of economies in the house,” he says, noting the Bushes may be wealthy, but they are “frugal people.”
At the end of their driveway is an huge metal security barrier that recedes into the ground when a car is admitted. Secret Service agents have an air-conditioned trailer where the mailbox might otherwise be, and the government built a small house where agents sleep.
in 1999 Crawford was, as it is now, a one-stoplight town with about 700 hardy souls. But after Bush was elected president in 2000, Crawford saw its tourism numbers skyrocket. Lately, though, visitors are more likely to be protesters than tourists, and protesters don’t usually buy trinkets and t-shirts celebrating “The Western White House.”
An Associated Press story reported that Crawford reaped about $813,000 in sales from souvenir shops in 1999. That ballooned to $2.66 million in 2004, but souvenir shop sales have been in a steady decline since. Locals blame Bush’s unpopularity and the war in Iraq for the drop.
But hope springs eternal. Bill Johnson, owner of Crawford’s largest gift shop, Yellow Rose, said he plans to continue running his store, which sells crosses, saddles, guns and Western clothing in addition to coffee mugs, T-shirts and other souvenirs. “I think the president’s ratings will go up, and when that happens, the sales go up,” he said.
How to get there: Take Highway 6 to the town of Valley Mills. South of Valley Mills on Farm-to-Market Road 317, pick up Middle Bosque Road. It winds and twists past cliffs and through woods for about 10 miles, tracing a path about a mile north and west of Rainey Creek and the Bush’s Prairie Chapel Ranch. Past the ranch property, Middle Bosque Road ends at Canaan Church Road. Go about two miles – you’ll pass the turnoff to the entrance of the Bush ranch on Prairie Chapel Road -and take a right on Coryell City Road to see the very quaint Canaan Baptist Church. You’ll definitely want to linger there a while.