Inspired by the state’s Spanish colonial history, this Texas hunting lodge south of San Antonio is infused with Southwestern style and Old World charm. Jaime Gillin surveys a picturesque Lone Star hacienda
South Texas is peppered with traditional single-story ranch homes — “sprawling and not very architecturally pleasing,” in the estimation of one Texas native, who sought something entirely different for the property she and her husband own in the scrub country between San Antonio and Laredo. There was already a 50-year-old hunting lodge on-site, but it was bare-bones, rustic and uncharming. The couple had something much grander in mind.
Both husband and wife are passionate hunters and frequently traveled through Spain and Portugal on hunting trips. “When you hunt abroad, you stay in the family ranch home — often a Spanish mission-style building that has been in the family for 400 years,” she says. The European homes they visited had a sense of authenticity and history that greatly appealed to her. She also appreciated their well-proportioned and comfortably scaled living spaces — they felt luxurious without being grand or showy.
So when the couple decided to build a Texas hunting lodge on their property in Frio County, Spanish mission architecture was top of mind. They found a kindred spirit in Michael G. Imber, a San Antonio-based architect with an impressive client list (he’s designed homes for Silicon Valley tycoons and a Dixie Chick, among others) and a deep familiarity with the architectural style they sought. The couple desired a home in harmony with its surrounding landscape; for that reason, too, Imber was an ideal match.
“It always starts with us making sure a house speaks of its place,” Imber says of his firm, renowned for designing stunning homes inspired by — and often built with materials from — their immediate settings. “For these particular clients, it was important that the house told a story of the land, and of hundreds of years of Spanish influence in Texas. We wanted to embody that history and culture through the built form and let those influences percolate through the architecture.”
The first time Imber stepped foot on his clients’ property, he knelt and scooped up a handful of sandy soil, “noting its nice texture and terra-cotta color,” he recalls. That same earth eventually made its way into the design, pigmenting the plaster that clads the entire 6,000-square-foot complex. “When the sun strikes it in the morning, it has a wonderful glow,” says Imber. “It feels as though the house is literally molded from the landscape.”
The home’s primary function — as a Texas hunting lodge — helped shape key aspects of its layout and design. The gracious entry courtyard is where the family and guests load their trucks before heading out for a day hunting dove, quail, turkey and deer. An elegant fountain bubbles in front of a dramatic facade that’s a modern, streamlined take on a Spanish colonial mission exterior, with its graphic, curvilinear parapet rising in front of a clay tile roof. Imber designed the facade to “react to the shifting drama of the sky,” as he puts it. “When the sun goes down behind the house, the silhouette becomes even stronger. And at night the stars are just unbelievable. Looking up, you feel like you’re just plucked out of the universe.” The living room, anchored by a large fireplace and spangled with mounted animal heads, contains multiple seating areas to accommodate different-sized groups. The Spanish-inspired kitchen, with its farm table and open shelves displaying glassware and plates, is a central gathering place, the site of generous breakfasts and lunches; an elegant dinner is served every night in the formal dining room. And in good weather, most evenings end around the “liar’s pit” — a fire pit perched at the edge of the compound, where the hunters gather in the evening to tell (and stretch) stories about their day.
Though the home was strongly inspired by a historical architectural vernacular, Imber adapted the style to suit modern living. “As modern human beings, we like more natural light in our homes than the original haciendas allowed,” he says. “But we did it in a way that feels natural to the architecture and doesn’t distract from a feeling of connectedness to history.” In the master bedroom and living room, for instance, Imber eschewed tiny windows — traditionally used to protect the interiors from heat and sun — in favor of glazed french doors with transom windows that let light flood in. Super-insulated walls and modern air conditioning ease the need for total sun protection.
The interiors, designed by the clients’ daughter, Renee Rolke, help create the transportive atmosphere the family desired. “We wanted everyone who came to our ranch to experience what it’s like to go to a traditional hunting ranch in Spain or Portugal — to re-create the feeling of being in another country,” says the client. “We wanted to get as close to a true Spanish colonial mission as we could.” To that end, she, her daughter and Imber went on sourcing trips to Guanajuato, San Miguel and Dolores Hidalgo in Mexico, and returned with 22 old mesquite doors, custom iron light fixtures, decorative items and Talavera tile. All of the hardware in the house is handmade and custom, in a rubbed bronze finish. The rooms have antique wooden beam ceilings and small, arched entryways — authentic details that add up to a warm and enveloping experience for the family members and their lucky guests.
“People are totally in awe when they drive up and see the house,” says the client. “It’s so unusual from anything else in south Texas. When you drive through the ranch and crest the hill, it’s like a vision from the 1800s.”