Five generations of the same family lived and worked on Squaw Creek Ranch, and the house they built reflects their life and times. “It’s an 1880s pioneer homestead in the Texas Hill Country,” says design/build remodeler Richard Laughlin.
Beginning as a simple gabled structure with walls of locally quarried limestone, the house grew in stages. An 1891 photograph shows a stone addition that gives it a broken-back saltbox profile. A second wood-framed addition across the rear dates from the 1970s, Laughlin says. “Up until that point, there was no indoor plumbing.” The home’s original wiring probably wasn’t much older than that, he adds.
Reflecting the pioneer era in which it was built, the original homestead had a simple configuration: two rooms downstairs and a loft above. Later additions doubled the footprint but created a boxy jumble of rooms on the first floor.
In updating the house, Laughlin devoted its stone-walled core to daytime living spaces. Enlarged arched openings permit an easy flow from the kitchen to the living and dining rooms. French doors open the dining room to a new screened porch. A two-bedroom suite fills the wood-framed 1970s-era addition at the rear, while a generous master bedroom suite occupies the entire second-floor loft.
Best of Both Worlds
Hired by the property’s new owners, who raise cattle and exotic game animals on the ranch and plan to retire there, Laughlin took the project in two directions at once.
First he stripped away decrepit 20th-century finishes to expose the building’s handsome historical bones. Then, using a combination of salvaged materials and advanced building technology, he updated the building to contemporary standards of comfort and performance while highlighting the handiwork of its original masons and carpenters.
For both aesthetic and environmental reasons, Laughlin uses existing and recycled materials as much as possible in his remodeling projects. And this house made an ideal subject for that approach. “Basically, we tried to save everything of a historic nature that we could and then used salvaged materials wherever possible,” he says.
Where his floor plan called for new openings in the existing masonry walls, “we were very careful to salvage all the original stone door jambs and reuse them as arch lintels,” Laughlin says. Not only did that yield a perfect match of color, grain, and texture, “it also shows respect for the original craftsmen to reuse all their hand-tooled stones.” Limestone — the most emblematic of Texas Hill Country building materials — was exposed as Laughlin removed the plaster to reveal the home’s original 18-inch–thick limestone masonry walls, giving the interior a rustic shot of historic authenticity.
When Laughlin’s crew gutted the interior, they uncovered evidence of an outdoor stair that had once climbed the back wall to the second-floor loft. “The kids actually had to go outside to get upstairs,” Laughlin says. Relocating a later, indoor, stair, Laughlin built the home’s third, along that same once-exterior wall. For the hand rail, Laughlin says, “we salvaged some wagon-tire iron.” Paint Rock, Texas–based blacksmith Randy Kiser unrolled the iron and hammered it flat, and Laughlin mounted it on pins drilled into the stone. Such repurposing “was common in the old days,” Laughlin says. “That’s what the blacksmiths had on hand — wagon-tire stock — and they used it for a lot of things.”
The existing first-floor structure — rotting log sleepers laid directly on the soil — could not be salvaged, but the existing flooring was sound. Laughlin gutted the floor, poured a mud slab with a vapor barrier to isolate the building from ground moisture, and reinstalled the original flooring on new sleepers. Some of the old cedar porch posts also were rotting, so he trimmed off their bottom ends and set each one on a stone plinth. A dilapidated barn on the site supplied stone and timbers for the new screened porch.
One of the first steps in restoring the building’s 19th-century authenticity was removing the gypsum board ceilings on the first floor to expose the original joists and decking above. “They had a nice lime wash on them,” says Laughlin, who also found that the joists had a hand-planed bead at each bottom edge. “You see how much different the craftsmanship was back then,” he says. “Even when things were harder, it seems like they built things nicer. It’s always amazing to see the accuracy and attention to detail.”
But Laughlin proves that contemporary remodelers have their moments too. “To preserve that downstairs ceiling, we went on top of the original floor and built a 6-inch sandwich to run all the wiring and plumbing,” he says. Hung with antique and period-reproduction light fixtures below and decked with salvaged pine flooring above, the assembly marries rustic purity and modern convenience without compromising either value. —Bruce Snider is senior contributing editor at CUSTOM HOME and RESIDENTIAL ARCHITECT, sister publications of REMODELING.