“While at Rock Ranch, family members immerse themselves in a different time and in a different place where they can appreciate the rustling of wind through oak trees and contemplate a shadow moving across a limestone wall.”
– J. Brantley Hightower

Rock Ranch in Wise County

WISE COUNTY – In his essay “The Necessity for Ruins,” J.B. Jackson writes of the importance of an “interval of neglect” in the history of a built object or landscape. “Ruins,” he notes, “provide the incentive for restoration, and for a return to origins.” While the old adage — we only miss things once they are gone—may very well be true, Jackson proposes that we also can appreciate things while they are here and take action before those things are lost forever.

Preservation Texas is dedicated to that idea. The Austin-based non-profit group aids the often complicated and expensive preservation process by building partnerships between government and other organizations to protect irreplaceable examples of the state’s built environment. Best known for its annual “Most Endangered Places” lists that identify sites at the greatest risk of being lost, Preservation Texas also recognizes projects that demonstrate creative solutions for the rehabilitation of historic structures. Its 2006 Historic Rehabilitation Award recognizes the renovation of a Civil War-era stone dwelling near Decatur, a project recently completed by Dallas-based architect Stephen B. Chambers, AIA.

One of the owners is the grandson of a Wise County rancher who took possession of the four-room structure a century ago. He contacted Chambers after realizing time was running out for the deteriorating stone structures his family had always referred to as Rock Ranch. Having been mostly abandoned for 40 years, there was considerable work to be done. The two men developed a course of action to adapt the house into a weekend retreat by preserving the buildings and the isolated rural environs while making minimal architectural interventions that wouldn’t compromise the rustic experience.

The exterior’s simple formal massing was essentially left unaltered. According to Chambers, the original stonework was in remarkably good condition despite its considerable age. Framed by the remains of a ruined stone wall of a neighboring barn, the complex seems to inherently belong in the landscape where it is exists, in part because it is built of native limestone quarried from natural outcroppings less than 300 feet away. The roughness of the masonry still bears the dimpled evidence of the hands and simple tools that carved it. As with many examples of early Texas architecture, ornament is not lacking but it is simplified. Take for example the detailing around the “Gothic” attic window. Rather than the ornate carving that more skilled stonemasons might have wrought, the opening was instead emphasized by a pattern of “dimples” drilled into the face of the stone by hand with a bow drill. The elegance and economy of this solution is made all the more apparent by the restrained massing of the structure itself, which was preserved with only a small stone lean-to shed added to enclose an air conditioning unit and a water heater.


Rock Ranch roof, built by unknown artisan hands

The house consists of three square rooms on the ground floor with a fourth room located upstairs above the central room. The floors and ceiling structures were carefully numbered, removed, rebuilt, and reinforced. A thin layer of rigid insulation was added under the new shingle roof made of wallaba (a type of naturally fireproof wood) and air conditioning ductwork was buried below the new wood floor (the original flooring having rotted beyond repair). Interior walls of plastered rubble were stabilized and electrical conduit was chiseled in and plastered over as needed. The rough-hewn ceiling structure was illuminated from below with inconspicuous cable lighting that highlights the texture while providing the interior with a warm glow.

Chambers also converted one other building on the site. Originally built as the stone base for a water storage tank, this structure was converted into the bathroom facilities for the house. By choosing the outhouse option, the formal purity of the main house was preserved and none of the four rooms needed to be subdivided to provide a bathroom. More importantly, locating the toilet facilities outside ensured that today’s occupants maintain a level of historical accuracy that connects them to the day-to-day existence of the house’s original inhabitants. While they might curse this level of connection on cold or wet evenings, the current occupants will experience the essence of what makes this project unique.

History has not been sanitized here, and the evidence that the house was built 150 years ago by resourceful individuals with limited technical means is ever-present. At the same time, the project provides a compelling opportunity for a family to temporarily remove itself from the complexities and noise of the modern world. While at Rock Ranch, family members immerse themselves in a different time and in a different place where they can appreciate the rustling of wind through oak trees and contemplate a shadow moving across a limestone wall.

J. Brantley Hightower

Information on Preservation Texas’ other awards and its “Most Endangered Places 2006” list is available at www.preservationtexas.org.