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Prairie Chapel Ranch is a 1,583 acre (6.4 km²) ranch in unincorporated McLennan County, Texas, located 7 miles (11 km) northwest of Crawford (about 25 miles (40 km) from Waco). The property was acquired by George W. Bush in 1999 and was known as the Western White House during his presidency. Bush spends vacation time at the house where he has also entertained dignitaries from around the world. The ranch gets its name from the Prairie Chapel School which was built nearby on land donated by mid-19th century German immigrant Heinrich Engelbrecht from Oppenwehe, Germany, who owned the land that now comprises the Bush ranch. Engelbrecht also donated land for the nearby Canaan Baptist Church (the "Prairie Chapel").
Engelbrecht and his heirs raised turkeys and hogs. The original Engelbrecht ranch house is about 4,400 feet (1,300 m) from the main house on Rainey Road and is now called the "Governor's House" and is used to accommodate overflow guests. The Bushes stayed in the house during construction of the new house.
In 1999, a year before he became President, shortly after earning a $14.3 million profit from the sale of the Texas Rangers, former Texas Governor Bush bought the land for an estimated $1.3 million from the Engelbrecht family. Assisting Bush in arrangements for the purchase was the then Texas Secretary of State Elton Bomer.
Bush removed five large hog barns on Mill Road leading into the compound in order to construct a new house, guest house, and garage.
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On May 10, 2008, the ranch played host to the wedding of Jenna Bush to Henry Hager, a son of former Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, John H. Hager. The ceremony was relatively simple and was attended by some two hundred friends and family members.
David Heymann, then an associate professor of architecture at the University of Texas at Austin, designed the four-bedroom, 4,000 ft² (372 m²) honey-colored native limestone single-level home with painted white galvanized tin roof on the site. Heymann said the house was built from the less sought after portion of the local "Lueders limestone." The middle portions of the blocks of stone is a cream colored while the edges are multicolored. "We bought all this throwaway stone. It's fabulous. It's got great color and it is relatively inexpensive," Heymann said.
In addition there is an open 10 foot (3 m) wide limestone porch that encircles the house. The house was built by members of a religious community from nearby Elm Mott, Texas, and wasn't completed until after Bush's inauguration because of needed accommodations for security, meeting space, etc.
Laura Bush said they decided to keep a single level ranch design because "We wanted our older parents to feel comfortable here... We also want to grow old here ourselves."
The passive-solar house is positioned to absorb winter sunlight, warming the interior walkways and walls of the residence. Geothermal heat pumps circulate water through pipes buried 300 feet (100 m) deep in the ground. A 25,000 US gallon (151 m³) underground cistern collects rainwater gathered from roof urns; wastewater from sinks, toilets, and showers cascades into underground purifying tanks and is also funneled into the cistern. The water from the cistern is then used to irrigate the landscaping around the home.
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.
In addition to the house there is a guest house and a garage in separate buildings to the southwest of the main house.
The facility includes a helicopter hangar which has been used as an auditorium on the rare occasions, when the former president has held a press conference at the ranch.
In 2002, the ranch was wired for what Bush described in a 2003 tour of the ranch as "real time, secure videoconferencing" to be used for his briefings from the CIA and other secured communications.
News reporters stayed in hotels in Waco. Press conferences that didn't involve the President were conducted in the gymnasium of Crawford Middle School, ten miles (16 km) away from the ranch. The barn often seen behind TV correspondents during their live reports was actually on private property behind the school.
The land includes seven canyons and three miles (5 km) of frontage along Rainey Creek and the Middle Bosque River. In August 2001 while touring the canyons with reporters Bush noted that the cedars in the canyons would be a good nesting ground for the endangered golden-cheeked warbler although the warblers have not actually been seen on the compound.
Bush added an 11 acres (4.5 ha) man-made pond that he stocked with 600 largemouth bass and 30,000 bait fish. There are also bluegill and red ear sunfish. The pond has a maximum depth of 17 feet (5.2 m). In May 2006, when asked to name the best moment in his administration, Bush jokingly said: "I would say the best moment was when I caught a 7½-pound largemouth bass on my lake."
At the urging of his daughters, Bush also built a swimming pool over the objections of Heymann who thought it would interrupt the stark views. Bush referred to it as "the whining pool" — whine long enough and you get it. It offers a respite from the hot Texas summers, and is heated by the same geothermal system as the house is during the winter.
A prized souvenir from the ranch is a gray Under Armour athletic shirt emblazoned with a Texas star encircled by the words The President's 100-Degree Club. In order to qualify a visitor must run 3 miles (4.8 km), or bike for 10, when the thermometer hits triple digits.
When he was president, Bush used the ranch for vacations, meetings, and entertaining foreign dignitaries. In the less formal setting, dress code for meetings called for an open collar and no tie. Guests were typically treated to meals of Southwestern cuisine. When not holding meetings or briefings, Bush spent his time mountain biking, jogging, fishing, bird hunting, and clearing brush.
Bush made clear his preference for spending some time away from his official residence at the White House in Washington, DC. In 2001, he said, "I think it is so important for a president to spend some time away from Washington, in the heartland of America."
Visitors to the ranch have included:
The Federal Aviation Administration had a full-time three nautical miles (six km) no fly zone, designated "Prohibited Area 49", around the ranch during the Bush Presidency. When President Bush was in residence at the ranch, a Temporary Flight Restriction was issued, expanding the radius to 10 nautical miles (19 km), with lesser restrictions extending to 30 nautical miles (56 km), containing some exceptions for Waco Regional Airport nearby.
Bush normally flew in and out of TSTC Waco Airport (the former Connally Air Force Base that is now owned by Texas State Technical College) on Air Force One, and was shuttled on Marine One to the ranch.
Cindy Sheehan spent several months outside the ranch protesting the Iraq War. She created a peace camp called Camp Casey by pitching a tent on the side of Prairie Chapel Road (which leads to the ranch) in 2005 and was joined at one point by filmmaker Michael Moore. She announced her intention to stay for the five weeks or until she was granted a second meeting with President Bush. She also promised that, were she not granted a second meeting, she would return to Crawford each time Bush visited there in the future. Several cabinet members went out to talk to Sheehan, but she refused stating that she would only talk to the President himself. Supporters of the President set up an alternative "Camp Reality" across Prairie Chapel Road.
At the close of the Bush presidency, the Bushes purchased a home in Dallas. Laura Bush confirmed that they would make that their permanent residence, while spending weekends and holidays at the ranch. The Wall Street Journal quoted an unnamed White House official: "They'll have their place in Crawford. He just loves it."
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