While George W. Bush was at his easel, searching for his inner Rembrandt as he and his wife settled into their post-presidency years, Laura Bush was nurturing her own artistic dream — perfecting a home worthy of a cover story in Architectural Digest.
The Bush family’s 1,600-acre Prairie Chapel Ranch on the outskirts of Crawford, Texas, graces the front of Architectural Digest’s August issue. When the images recently popped up online, the couple's daughter Barbara posted the cover photo on Instagram: "Now @laurawbush can go to heaven a happy lady!" she said. "The designer in her got into the designer Bible @architecturaldigest," added Barbara's twin, Jenna Bush Hager, in her own Instagram post of the magazine cover.
While Bush was president, the couple’s Texas ranch was best known as a rustic weekend retreat — his "slice of heaven" — where they hosted a wide array of foreign leaders, as well as top advisors who traveled to Texas to shape policy over Bush’s monthlong vacations.
The Bushes bought the ranch in 1999, and during his first presidential campaign, the images of Bush tooling around the dirt roads in a white pickup truck and cutting brush helped burnish his image as the down-to-earth outsider who would never be comfortable in Washington. He made it no secret that he was far happier clearing cedar and mesquite, or leading mountain bike rides through the challenging Central Texas terrain, than hobnobbing with the Georgetown set.
(An aide said Monday that Bush was looking forward to bike rides in a few weeks after undergoing a second partial knee replacement, this one on his left knee, on Saturday at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. He had undergone a partial right knee replacement over the Memorial Day weekend.)
As the daughter of a Midland, Texas, builder who built spec houses, Laura Bush had an eye for design and clear vision for what the couple wanted when they chose architect David Heymann, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture.
The elegant single-level ranch house with its tall windows and many glass-paneled doors lent the home a breezy indoor-outdoor feel. Laura Bush wanted the three-bedroom limestone home, with its adjacent two-suite guesthouse, to “fit into the landscape,” she told Architectural Digest.
Set among a grove of live oaks and cedar elms, the house is surrounded by meadows of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush and a 10-acre lake stocked with bass. (The lake was the site of Jenna Bush’s 2008 wedding to Henry Hager.) Built with a sustainable design, the house includes a geothermal energy system, and rainwater is captured from the roof to fill a cistern of recycled water that is used to water the lawns.
Heymann told the magazine that the former first lady has “a very, very good eye,” after watching her father build “carefully organized houses.” She noticed, for example, that although the couple was going for a handcrafted look with the Texas Lueders limestone the architect chose, the masons had been laying it perfectly instead of in a “slightly irregular way” to give it the old-fashioned look. The architect joked that they had to take away the masons’ levels.
The house is scattered with reminders of Bush’s presidency as well as his political pedigree, from the Afghan carpet in the study to an antique partners desk that belonged to his grandfather Prescott Bush, a U.S. senator from Connecticut. And it also houses many of the portraits of pets that the former president has created in the last few years after being inspired to take up painting by Winston Churchill’s essay “Painting as Pastime.”
Although the former president takes weekly lessons from an art instructor at the couple’s main home in Dallas, he likes to paint at an easel in the glass-paneled breezeway of the Prairie Chapel Ranch that looks out onto the surrounding countryside.
"We wanted to see and enjoy the beauty as much as possible,” the former president told Architectural Digest, clearly still eager to escape the city for inspiration in the prairie as often as he can.