• The staggered layout of the casitas equips each with privacy and unimpeded views of either the Chisos Mountains or the Santa Elena Canyon. - photo by Casey Dunn

The design of Willow House in Terlingua sets an intriguing mold for hospitality: a gathering of concrete boxes that can make guests feel entirely alone and yet part of a close community.

Maker/Client Lauren Werner

The tiny town of Terlingua, Texas, has grabbed national attention more than once in its tumultuous history: first, in the 1920s, as the Chisos Mining Company grew to prominence, producing over 40 percent of all the United States’ quicksilver; then, again, in the 1940s, when the mines played out and the company filed for bankruptcy, leaving behind a ghost town fit for a John Wayne western. Twenty years later, tourism began to breathe life back into the abandoned village when two rivaling chili connoisseurs deemed Terlingua a neutral site for an annual cook-off, which attracts upwards of 10,000 visitors each year. Now, in 2020, the modest town (population 80) has once more made headlines, this time for a rather unexpected hotel concept: Willow House, an elegant yet understated desert retreat, which allows for a luxurious experience of the breathtaking, raw terrain of far West Texas.

Willow House is located on a 287-acre property situated at a unique vantage point just six miles from the entrance to Big Bend National Park. The hotel’s designer, owner, and innkeeper, Lauren Werner, is a Southern California native who worked in Dallas development after graduating from SMU. In 2015, she took a road trip to Big Bend and immediately fell in love with the region. Noting the lack of refined accommodations from which to enjoy the area’s astounding beauty, Werner set about looking for land, though she was unsure of what it would lead to. She eventually found the perfect property a year and a half later, and her knowledge of the development industry, combined with both an ambition to start a business and a family background in construction, led her to take on the challenge of designing and building a hospitable getaway in one of the most remote locations in the Lower 48. 

Although Werner’s background certainly was a driving factor, grit is what got her through the experience. The looser architectural regulations of the unincorporated area may have allowed Werner to achieve her goals without any formal architectural training or licensure; however, the isolated terrain of Terlingua created many unforeseen obstacles.

“Getting water and electricity to the property was half the battle,” she says. There was a two-year waiting list to be tapped into the local water supply, so Werner decided to drill a well; however, as the property’s reverse osmosis system was not yet assembled, the unfiltered water’s high sodium content caused issues with the concrete composition. With minimal phone service and the nearest airport well over three hours away, intense planning was essential at every phase. One hiccup could set construction back days, even weeks. Nevertheless, Werner, her sub-contractors, and local craftsmen managed to turn over construction in just under two years. And the result is stunning — so stunning, in fact, that Architectural Digest’s online write-up received unprecedented Internet traffic, securing the Willow House article a spot on the magazine’s homepage for several weeks.

With the Chisos mountain range and Santa Elena Canyon directly to the southeast and southwest, respectively, Werner emphasizes that “the views and the land were the biggest factors” in the design of the project. Each of the hotel’s 11 single-story, stick-frame and concrete casitas, along with the communal main house, are oriented to frame uninterrupted views of the surrounding geological formations. The rectangular volumes, unique in both dimension and design, sit atop slightly-above-grade concrete slab foundations, allowing the facades of each cubic form to rise subtly from the flat desert mesa, while avoiding flash floods during monsoon season. The placement of the buildings reads like a series of figure-ground studies: punched rectangular fenestration, recessed patios, extruded bathrooms. Made of carefully curated materials and tones, the structures themselves fade into the arid landscape. “Light colors and pitched roofs stick out in the desert,” Werner says, “so in order to respect the land, and our neighbors, we left the concrete unfinished and employed flat, parapet roofs.” 

The buildings feature eight-inch walls with seven-inch foam insulation to combat Terlingua’s unforgiving climate, where temperatures frequently exceed 100 degrees in the summer months and winds can reach speeds of up to 80 miles per hour. Even during periods of extreme weather, guests can still enjoy the land via covered patios.

The interior spaces similarly harmonize with the landscape. The 1,500-sf main house and each unique casita, ranging from 250 to 600 sf, incorporate carefully curated furniture, textiles, art, and found objects in a subtle collection of earthen hues. Ocotillo branches and stones from the property sit alongside African ceramic vases and Peruvian alpaca blankets. Experiencing the décor at Willow House is like rereading a good book: There’s always an exciting new detail hiding among the familiar pages. But even amid the abundance of interesting accessories, the spaces maintain a refined elegance. The combination communicates an elevated yet personal experience, far from the cold, corporate character of most hotels.

This message of comfort contributes to the overall ambition of Willow House: to provide a bespoke stay to any guest. The freedom here defies the confines of typical travel. A communal kitchen allows guests to bring and prepare their own meals or mix cocktails with strangers. The property’s location provides easy access to restaurants when cooking isn’t in the cards. The main house doors are open 24/7, allowing conversations — and a spectacular alternative playlist — to flow, well after the mesmerizing desert sun sets. Bring your own firewood (and marshmallows) if you’d like to hang out under a starry sky free of light pollution. Or, just escape to your private casita and enjoy its many amenities: soapstone showers, plush robes, views for miles. Facilitated by Werner’s considerate desert design, the careful balance between community and privacy at Willow House affords an unforgettable experience to any traveler looking to venture out West.

Sophie Aliece Hollis is an architecture and journalism student at UT Austin and TA’s editorial intern. 

Leave a Comment