A Haven in Hill Country

Inspiration is everywhere when a family decides to build their vacation home in the Lone Star state.

A Haven in Hill CountryInspiration is everywhere when a family decides to build their vacation home in the Lone Star state. The stars at night are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas. If you were a turn-of-the-century ranch hand, you'd spend plenty of evenings under those stars when you went out to check on the herd. And at night, if you were lucky, you could bed down in a "line check" house, happy for the protection of its weather-beaten walls.  Before pickup trucks and SUVs made traveling on a sprawling Texas ranch easy, these wind-blown shelters provided temporary homes for field hands and cowboys when they couldn't make it back to the bunkhouse. Some line check buildings still stand as reminders of the rough comfort and warm camaraderie of the past.  Family RoomA Dallas family used the idea of these utilitarian buildings as the starting point for their weekend lakeside home. An unassuming inspiration, yes; but the result is a house that offers luxury in a place that is as comfortable as a broken-in saddle and as rustic as a split-rail fence. Not What You'd Expect The house is built in the northern-most part of Texas Hill Country, the same lush setting that inspired Larry McMurtry's acclaimed novel, Lonesome Dove. A scenic place of rolling hills, green pastures and deep valleys, it is a far cry from the tumbleweed and cactus that most Yankees associate with the Lone Star state. It's located about two hours from Fort Worth in the heart of America's cattle country, so it's probably no surprise that the home site was once part of a huge cattle ranch. While you can still see Longhorn steer here (as well as an original 1913 homestead and barn), it's now an upscale resort community on the banks of a scenic lake. The owners of this house, a couple with three children, knew they would not be able to be present during most of the 23 months that it took to construct their home. Instead, they relied on the help of talented area craftspeople and on the dedication of a personal assistant. The first stop was to select an architect for the more than 6,000-square-foot home. They chose John Allen, who has designed many of the homes built in the community. When it became clear that these owners wanted a large house that would capture the handcrafted qualities of the past, John suggested they work with Texas Timber Frames, a San Antonio-based company that specializes in traditional joinery and Old World timber finishes. "The owners wanted something that was rustic and ranch-like," says John. "The lot was a challenge because it was narrow on one side and had the view of the lake on the other. Plus there were trees that they wanted to preserve." There were other considerations, including the ranch association's clause that stipulated that the house had to have at least 75 percent of its exterior made of masonry, stone or stucco. Working with the owners, John developed a design to satisfy all the requirements. He sited the house to "step around" the trees and developed a floorplan that placed the main rooms on the backside, which is the lakeside, to capture the best views. The house would comprise a combination of materials. The timber frame would be oak, and the stone veneer used both on the exterior and inside for fireplaces would be native limestone. In addition to a variety of materials, the house also would combine building techniques, both timber frame and conventional construction.  BedroomThe design employed timber framing in the main living area, the stairwell and the kitchen. In addition, Texas Timber Frames provided the non-structural accent timbers used throughout the house and on the porches. Though the owners chose custom-cut white oak timbers, they didn't want anything to look new. "Often we do a lot of distressing for clients who want an old look," explains Grant Morris, project manager for Texas Timber Frames.  Once the owners approved the plans, builder Darrell Weatherbee, who's renowned for his attention to detail, began preparing the site. Then Grant ordered the oak from an Amish mill in northern Ohio. When the milled timbers arrived in the Texas Timber Frames facility, the handcrafters finished them with drawknives, used an adze for a hand-hewn look and wire-brushed all the pieces to raise the grain.  A crew of six arrived at the site with all the timbers for the frame, plus stair rails, balusters and treads, as well as material for the ceiling, window casings, chair rails and baseboards. It took them four weeks to erect the timber-framed portion of the home, and then Darrell took over the conventionally constructed portion. Grant's crew returned later on in the project to set some additional, non-structural timber elements.  Perception is Reality The architect deliberately designed the house to give the impression that it had been added onto over the course of generations. For example, there's a window in the master suite that opens onto the second floor hallway, as if it was once on an outside wall, and one wall of the children's bedroom is stone, as if it, too, was once the exterior of the house. There's even a guesthouse attached to the main structure via a "dogtrot" passageway. Exterior ViewDarrell also worked hard to make this new house look old, hand-scraping the handsome oak floors, distressing the kitchen's custom cabinetry and the house's second stairway, an airy spiral stair made of Colorado aspen. All the hardware in the house was custom made to mimic what would have been used on a ranch house 100 years ago. Darrell asked the hardware company not to powder-coat the doorknobs and drawer pulls before the pieces were shipped. His plan was to let them rust enough to look old, then put a sealer on to stop oxidation. But he didn't want to wait a long time for them to rust so he asked the company to ship the hardware in plastic bags with a little water. The company's representative did it, Darrell reports. "But he also muttered something about crazy Texans," he says.  As anyone who has ever built a vacation house knows, working with a contractor long-distance is a challenge. Because these owners couldn't be intimately involved in the project, Stacy Foster, the owner's personal assistant, handled that task. Although the project was two hours away from her home, she was onsite regularly. "Stacy was fantastic to work with," Darrell says. "She was on the job weekly and was a great liaison."  It was a good experience for Stacy, too, who also served as the couple's interior decorator, coordinating the custom-made lodge-style furniture and selecting all the home's appointments. And she enjoyed seeing each step of building this house and its components. "I got to see the frame going up, and I was there the day they brought the cabinets in," Stacy recalls. "Some were so large they had to come in through the balcony doors on a cherry picker."  Because she visits often when the family is here, she knows the house is a success. "It's a very casual place, and that's what they wanted." And she has her own favorite spot to relax. "I love to sit on the sofa in the living room and look up at the timbers." The only sight that's better from this incredible vacation home is outside, taking in the stars that loom large over the Texas night sky. For a list of companies who contributed to the home, see the Spring 2003 issue of Timber Frame Homes.
Story by Linda Vaccariello Photography by Roger Wade