Ship on the Desert

A rectangular house made of yellow stone rises in front of mountains.
A northeast view of Ship on the Desert from the front yard of the building.

NPS Photo

Quick Facts

Ship on the Desert was listed as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2018. Stay tuned for more information about future preservation plans for the building. 

Designed in 1941 and built between 1941 and 1943, the Ship on the Desert was commissioned by Wallace E. Pratt, a petroleum geologist known as an innovator in the field of scientific oil exploration who later served as the vice president of Humble Oil & Refining Company and then of Standard Oil Company, now known as Exxon Mobil Corporation. The Ship on the Desert is an early example of 20th century modernism, distinct for West Texas. The architecture firm Milliken & Bevin, based in New York, designed the Pratt family summer residence to blend into the surrounding mountainous landscape, using local limestone and panoramic windows which serve as the building’s most prominent character defining features.

Wallace E. Pratt was originally brought to the Guadalupe Mountains while working for the Humble Oil & Refining Company where he was hired as the first staff geologist in 1918. Pratt revolutionized their oil location technique by replacing their previous “hit or miss” method, with scientific methods that were far more accurate and profitable.His success at Humble Oil and his commitment to technological innovation in the field of geology led him to become vice president of Humble’s parent company, Standard Oil.

Pratt first saw the land that would later become his home in 1921 when he visited West Texas on a trip with oil brokers to acquire leases for Humble. While there he was offered the opportunity to see the “most beautiful spot in Texas,” this spot being McKittrick Canyon, a resplendent enclave amid the scrub desert with free-flowing streams, waterfalls, and lush greenery. Pratt purchased the land with two partners as a summer vacation spot and built his first home in the area, Pratt Cabin, designed by architect John Staubs, in the winter of 1931-32. Pratt Cabin is a small, two bedroom cabin with a distinctly rustic feel, made of locally quarried stone. The Pratt family summered here but it’s remote location and susceptibility to inclement weather made it somewhat undesirable. To avoid this, the family chose an alternate location on higher ground for their next home. Pratt then proceeded  to hire New York architecture firm Milliken & Bevin to design their second home. 

While it is unclear exactly how Wallace Pratt came to know Milliken & Bevin, it is speculated that his social prominence on the East Coast and their reputation for designing lavish homes in New York led to the partnership for Ship on the Desert. Construction began in 1941 but was put on pause briefly due to the material shortages caused by the Second World War. The house was completed by 1943 as per the May 1943 issue of The New Pencil Points magazine which published an article on the home. During construction, Newton Bevin and his wife Elizabeth stayed in the Pratt Cabin in McKittrick Canyon while overseeing the work of building contractor Edward Birdsall of Carlsbad, New Mexico. While the firm is formally credited for the building’s design, Pratt, in his letters, cites Elizabeth and Newton Bevin as the actual designers of the building.

The built product was immediately acknowledged by the architectural community for its design excellence, with it most notably featured in New Pencil Points. Its progressive use of the stylistic and structural elements of European Modernism and the International Style were unprecedented in this remote region of West Texas. While on the one hand being an incredibly modern piece of architecture, Ship on the Desert retained, through its use of locally quarried stone masonry, a rustic quality that is very much in harmony with the landscape and with Wallace Pratt’s interests as a geologist.                                    

Following its construction, Pratt and his wife lived at the residence for the following 15 years. In their retirement, the Pratt’s lived in relative solitude and Wallace would often fly his small plane from the main house to his office in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The couple eventually moved to Arizona due to health concerns, leading to Pratt’s decision to donate the house to the National Park Service in 1959. The initial donation included 4,942 acres of land and an additional 690 acres were donated by the Pratt’s between 1960 and 1961. That first gift to the NPS lead to the creation of the Guadalupe Mountains National Park, officially established in 1972. Today Ship on the Desert remains under the care of the National Park Service and is utilized as a research center and generally not open to the public.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Last updated: August 3, 2022