“Where are you from?” These days—with so many of us traveling far from our roots in search of a better job or a better climate or a different way of life—it’s become an increasingly common question. And why not? Asking where someone hails from doesn’t just pinpoint a geographic spot, it may also reveal something about a person’s history and heritage. Where we come from is a part of who we are.
Ask this question of a certain married couple in East Texas—Susan and Josiah—and they might respond with a quizzical look or a gentle smile. After all, they’re liable to be standing on the very land that’s been in Susan’s family for over 130 years. Ask about the farmhouse on that land, though, and you’ll be surprised to learn it’s only about three years old.
This custom ranch home is also a second home and was designed by Steve Chambers, A.I.A., a Dallas-based residential architect with more than 30 years experience in residential design and historic renovation. It’s a weekend retreat for the couple, but it’s something more than that. Susan and Josiah consider this their true home. It’s a tribute to their ancestry, to East Texas, and to their life together.
“We said, ‘Steve, we would like you to design us a farmhouse that will look as if it could have been built by Susan’s ancestors when they acquired the property in 1871.'”
-Owners, Susan and Josiah
“The land has been in my family since 1871,” Susan says. “It was purchased by my great-great-grandfather. So, when we went to Steve to design us a house, we explained to him how important the land was to us and that this was a house we’d own forever because we do not plan to sell the land.”
To accomplish this task, Chambers and his clients chose to site the house back in a forest of mature pine and oak trees facing the open meadowland pasture where cattle graze. “That was a delicate operation.” Chambers says. “You had to make the house look as established as possible, like the trees had actually grown up around the house.” The site slopes toward the meadow, so Chambers started the house close to the grade in the back and allowed the house to rise up on a pier-and-beam foundation toward the front. “Instead of pushing the house down in the ground, so to speak, we made it so it seems to rise toward the meadow. This gives it nicer view out to the field.”
In designing the house, Chambers and his clients drew from the distinctive architectural traditions of East Texas. “They’re very interested in history.” Chambers says. “And in particular, Texas history. So we spent a good bit of time looking at and doing research on historical Texas homes from the 1800s: small, almost cabin like houses.”
As he explains, early Texas houses were often simple boxlike structures with a gabled roof that were then added on to over the generations. Looking at the front of this house, the dormer windows on the second floor cut deeply into the roofline, as though the upstairs rooms were carved out of former attic space. From the side of the house, at the kitchen entrance, the saltbox profile gives the illusion of a later addition. “They built as much house as they could to start with,” Chambers says of the early settlers. “Then they moved up into the attic and then added a shed on back for more space. So that’s really where the form and shape of this house come from.”
Among the most prominent exterior features, the big front porch is typical for Southern houses throughout the 1800s. Big porches were important in old homes,” Chambers says, “because they let you sit comfortably out of the sun and take in the breeze. Our weather down here is hot. Unlike up North where the big concern is to keep warm, down here it’s to keep cool.”
As one might expect, Chambers and his clients chose building materials appropriate for their East Texas location, like galvanized steel roofing and a stone exterior. “It’s called Arkansas Cafe Chop,” Susan explains. “It’s a sandstone. Most newly built stone houses tend to be Texas limestone. But this is East Texas, and it’s very humid. We were concerned it would become blackened over time. This stone is aging very gracefully, because it has all the brown colors and variations in it.”
The choice of stones and their placement became a labor of love for Susan and their mason, Derrick Johnson. “The crowning glory of the house is the stonework,” she says. To give the exterior and chimney a more rustic appearance, the mason split many of these dimension stones, weaving the smaller pieces throughout the courses. Susan and Josiah also went out into their pasture and gathered some of the native iron-ore stone to add to the mix. “There’s a fair amount just below the surface,” Josiah says. “And occasionally, walking the property, you’ll come across them. I asked the mason to incorporate them because I thought it was consistent with the theme of a house that looked like it might have been built in 1871.”
“When the weather is good, which is most of the year, we sit out on one of the porches. We consider those to be major rooms of the house.”
Smaller details, like the lighting, were also chosen with East Texas in mind. As Susan points out, much of the reproduction lighting on the market has a New England aesthetic. So, to light the front porch, she selected oversized barn lights that transcend any regional connotations. “These seemed to look Texas enough for us,” she says. The kitchen chandelier is an adaptation of a one-of-a-kind folk art fixture from Old Deerfield, Massachusetts, she points out, so it’s also not a typical New England fixture.
Susan and Josiah had one other requirement for their house: that it be small and manageable enough for a couple, but also flexible enough to comfortably accommodate visiting family and friends. “We asked Steve to design it as small as he could to accomplish what we want,” Josiah explains. At 1,950 square feet—and with the master bedroom and bath on the first floor—it’s just right for two people. But the house works well for hosting overnight guests in the two upstairs bedroom suites and for entertaining, too. In fact, they specifically requested the front porch be large enough for two large dining tables— enough space to seat 16. “When the weather is good, which is most of the year, we sit out on one of the porches,” Susan says. “We consider those to be major rooms of the house.”
With the new farmhouse complete, Susan, Josiah, and Stephen Chambers have turned their attention to another meaningful project here: the reconstruction of a double-pen dogtrot log cabin, which will serve as a guesthouse. Like their new house, this structure has special significance for the owners, as it’s the original log cabin that Josiah’s great-great-grandfather built when he moved to Texas in 1856. The logs have been transported to their property, the plans have been drawn up, and work is set to start soon. For Susan and Josiah, it’s another way to deepen their roots with their land, a continuation of their families’ histories, and part of a heritage that is sure to be treasured by their own descendents.
The gabled ends of the front porch were left open to catch as much of the breeze as possible. When the weather is fine, you’ll find owners Susan and Josiah here. Architect Stephen Chambers chose a rich mix of natural materials—cedar, Oklahoma tan flagstones, and Arkansas sandstone for the façade—lending beauty and durability to the exterior.
The kitchen is a mix of fine finished cabinetry—like flush-frame cabinets—balanced against rustic touches, such as the soapstone counters and open shelving. The hutch reads as a single, freestanding piece of furniture, “like a breakfront or a secretary,” according to the architect. It is topped by a crown-molding detail found by Interior designer Mary Cates book of antique furniture and reproduced by Fisher Cabinetworks of Flint, Texas.According to architect Steve Chambers, the intent of the open floor plan downstairs was to “make the space live as large as possible.” Although the walls are clad in pine boards, the owners and architect wanted a more finished look for the interiors. This was achieved by separating the boards one-quarter inch during installation, and then painting them Benjamin Moore China White. Doors, door trim, and window trim are painted Benjamin Moore Bennington Gray. The 5-inch-wide pine board flooring selected for use throughout the house is a lesser grade of pine, adding to the fiction that this is a much older house. The idiosyncratic saltbox shape and distinctive masonry are especially evident when approaching the house from the driveway. In time, the owners intend to build a garage barn here.
The 1920s were among the inspirations for the master bath. “You can imagine that someone had remodeled the house then,” Susan says. Blue wainscoting and an antique-inspired hexagonal tile floor—found in all three bathrooms—unify and enliven the space. The bathtub is a reproduction made from an original mold, and the motif topping the medicine cabinets was copied from photos of antique cupboards.
Reprinted with permission from Old House Journal’s New Old House Spring 2008. ©2008 Home Buyer Publications, Chantilly, Virginia, 800-826-3893. For more details and a discussion about the process of ranch design, how a ranches are different from city homes, read our article on custom ranch homes.