Where Texas Ends

The Franklin Mountains are the southernmost expression of the Rio Grande rift, an uplift of Precambrian rock that runs from Colorado down through New Mexico. The ridge dissipates long enough to create El Paso del Norte, a gap formed by the Rio Grande that holds the cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. A military base and cement factory mar the range’s leeward side, but its windward side, intact and austere, looks out over the cityscape to Juárez beyond. This slope, littered with lechuguilla as well as weathered gray stones and quartz crystals from an abandoned mine, is the site of the Franklin Mountain House, designed by Dale Rush, AIA, and Darci Hazelbaker, Assoc. AIA, who co-founded their Tucson-based practice Hazelbaker Rush in 2009.

Hazelbaker and Rush met in Albuquerque in 2001, and later relocated to Tucson when Dale began working for Rick Joy. After completing a few small projects for friends, they made their collaboration official and informally started with the renovation of their own home. Both have long been makers: For them, the sensory experience of making objects is the “connective thread that runs through the practice.” 

The Franklin Mountain House’s clients, a design-minded couple now with two small children, interviewed architects in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona before deciding to work with Hazelbaker Rush. The trust involved was substantial, as they were the first official clients for the nascent architecture office. The project became a “labor of love,” with the designers choreographing the intimate experience that is the custom home design process — in this case, a three-year sequence that began in January 2011 and yielded the completed home in August 2014. 

Inspiration for the architecture arrived from the impressive site, whose sweeping views across the city and beyond capture the literal end of Texas (the home is located just three miles northeast of Mexico and New Mexico). Conceptually, the project's stacked massing at once digs into and hovers above the hillside. The spaces unfold across three levels, stepping up with the grade: A sunken garage and support level anchors the home; the main open kitchen/living/dining space opens out to the pool deck; and bedrooms fill the upper floor, which is set perpendicular to the lower levels. 

Hazelbaker Rush, to great success, explore a rich heavy/light material palette throughout. Black stone, a ubiquitous El Paso building material, forms the fortress-like base, sourced from a quary a few miles from the site and laid by a crew of local masons. Rush and Hazelbaker described the process as slow going until the crew locked into the tight-joint, recessed grout look the architects were after, and then it was off to the races. Rush explained the wall section: each stone layer is 6–8-in deep over a CMU core resulting in about two feet of wall thickness to work with (the west wall, to guard against the western sun, utilizes double CMU construction with an additional interior layer of 

insulation, making for an even thicker wall build-up). Black walnut millwork and concrete floors reinforce the lower level’s earthiness. Above, there are white walls, white oak flooring and millwork, and a monolithic white lime cement stucco exterior with black epoxy-painted steel window bucks. From downhill, the stone mass and concrete columns blend into the desert scrub, leaving the stucco prism to float in space. 

Openings in the volumes are placed with maximum sensitivity to what is being seen when. A corner window in the living room slices southwest to a striking view of Mount Cristo Rey, a change only caught while onsite during construction. The kitchen opens to a pool and deck, which overlook the city to the southwest. The horizontal slit window in the upper volume delivers a cropped view of the skyline at night, as the kids drift off to sleep. The master suite slider opens to the eastern lawn, while the kids’ windows concentrate views into the yard below, where terraced stone walls support native Muhly grasses and a young paloverde tree. 

For Hazelbaker Rush, a project’s small embellishments are the “jewelry to the home.” At the Franklin Mountain House, “natural, honest, somewhat conventional materials are used in slightly unconventional ways to clearly convey a refinement of the vernacular craft.” To that end, Hazelbaker and Rush fabricated many of the details themselves: the stitched leather and steel drawer pulls, jute cord bathroom pendants, entry lighting, spun brass kitchen pendants, ipe shower benches, a cast concrete powder bath sink, master bed frame, door pulls and lever handles, office desk and shelving, magnetic chalkboards, and exterior gates and benches. Rush also fabricated steel boxes for outlets, hose bibs, and doorbells to sit within the black stone wall, and even fashioned a portable family yardstick for charting the growth of the clients’ children. This masterful display is at once “what the building deserves,” and what was required for the couple to remain true to their hands-on approach to architecture.

Hazelbaker Rush is now at work on two residences in Tucson, in addition to other fabrication projects. Darci also teaches at the University of Arizona, a position she's held since 2007. In conversation about the scenic-yet-harsh American Southwest, where the big sky offers its expansive horizon along with its intense heat, the question came up: “How do you make architecture of this place?” If you’re looking for answers, the Franklin Mountain House is a great place to start. 

Jack Murphy, Assoc. AIA, is an architectural designer at Baldridge Architects in Austin. 

Originally published in the May/June 2016 issue of Texas Architect.