IT WOULD NOT BE AN EXAGGERATION to say that there is a blizzard of activity in Bob Ragan’s studio. On a sunny day in September, the cavernous metal building looks as if it were located north of the Arctic Circle instead of north of Austin. A fine white powder swirls through the air and accumulates on everything in the room: tables, tools, filing cabinets, a boombox, a bicycle. But the powder isn’t snow. It’s the tiniest leftovers of limestone, a substance that Central Texas—and Ragan’s national reputation—is made of.
On most days, Ragan and three other carvers at his Texas Carved Stone chisel away at great slabs of stone. They scrape and saw. They file and sand. They become cloaked in dust themselves. Hard rock is transformed into the fluid lines of volutes on Corinthian capitals. Flat, blank planes are turned into three-dimensional rosettes for grand entryways or into flourishes for massive twenty-foot fireplaces. The intricacy of Ragan’s work brings to mind the great European cathedrals and villas that show up in art history books and every tourist’s snapshots. And, fittingly, the renaissance in stone carving he is helping to bring about is happening in a small Texas town called Florence.
“We have a real pride in what we’re doing because it’s such an old trade that was almost lost,” says the 45-year-old, who wears cotton kerchiefs adorned with patterns normally seen on surfing shorts to hold back his long, sandy-blond hair. “Stone carving was always passed on from grandfather to father to son, but after World War II, we went on to different building materials. The old carvers just carved gravestones and memorials until they died out.”
A Vietnam veteran and former hippie, the husky-voiced Ragan still seems more a part of the tie-dyed set than the high-end interior decorating world—yet his handiwork can be seen on doorways, mantels, tables, and benches in some of Texas’ most elaborate domiciles. Ragan created columns and the top to a desk for Ann Richards while she was governor, and he recently completed a fireplace for the library of mystery writer David Lindsey. “He does very precise work that’s always graceful,” says Lindsey, who first collaborated with Ragan on a tabletop four years ago. “He’s very much an artist, in soul and in craft.” Other Texas clients (whose privacy he has vowed to protect) include an energy mogul, a sports team owner, and a billionaire philanthropist; outside the state, he has served socialites, music-industry bigwigs, and even a high official of the Reagan administration.
“He’s the best I’ve seen anywhere,” says Corey Ford, the vice president of Tommy Ford Construction, a discriminating Dallas builder that has subcontracted with Ragan on almost all its homes in the past seven years. “The detail in his carving is extraordinary.” Ragan’s work is considered so close to that of Old World carvers that he is often called on to help renovate historic buildings. His reproductions grace San Antonio’s city hall, the Erath County courthouse in Stephenville, and the Eddleman-McFarland mansion in Fort Worth. Currently he is restoring the capitals of twenty-foot columns on the Hill County courthouse in Hillsboro, which was originally built by acclaimed Texas architect W. C. Dodson.
While Ragan’s extravagant efforts don’t come cheap—his fee for a single fireplace can be $35,000—some of his simpler work is more affordable. I found Ragan while my husband and I were renovating a stone barn in the Hill Country. I had seen a photo of an old stone sink with a shallow basin in a magazine and was looking for someone to replicate it for our master bathroom. After I talked to several carvers who couldn’t be trusted with a birdbath, our architect mentioned a guy named Ragan in Florence (“I’ll never be able to afford the shipping,” I thought, before learning there was a Texas town by that name). Several months after I visited Ragan’s studio and discussed the design with him, I had a completely functional sink that was nicked up and aged so beautifully it could have been an ancient fountain in Provence.
One of Ragan’s strengths is his ability to improve on the past. Many customers who could afford to go to France and buy an antique fireplace would rather he create a piece because they can get exactly the look they want and have it made to fit their house perfectly. “If someone has to have an antique, then that’s what they need to do,” he says. “But most people have a problem retrofitting.” The only drawback of a Ragan fireplace is a certain reduction in bragging rights—“You can’t tell your friends it’s three hundred years old and you found it in a château in the Loire Valley,” says Whit Hanks of Austin’s Whit Hanks Antiques, one of three galleries that display his work (the others are E. C. Dicken in Dallas and Ventura-Knight in Los Angeles). Hanks recalls finding a Louis XV stone breastplate that a customer wanted to make into the centerpiece of a fireplace: “When [Ragan] was through, you couldn’t tell what was the eighteenth-century breastplate and what was the twentieth-century stonework.”
For the renovation of San Antonio’s city hall, which required him to recreate complex decorations—festoons, bunches of grapes, flowers, bows—surrounding the windows, Ragan had a bigger challenge: copying the style of four different carvers. “We could tell by the chisel marks that there were four,” he says. “When we redid the pieces, we did them the exact same way. I had four carvers matching the four different chisel marks.”
It is by paying such close attention to existing stonework that Ragan has honed much of his craft. Though he studied art for only a year in high school, he has an ardor for buildings and can often be found poring over architecture books, such as one on Europe’s great cathedral builders. He learned about structures and proportion while working as a bricklayer and stonemason, first in Oklahoma in the sixties and then in Austin in the early seventies.