Rock Star

By replicating ancient stonework down to the tiniest detail, Bob Ragan has carved out a niche among renovators, decorators, and other high-end clients.

July 1996By Comments

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. And in the late seventies he worked as the carver at a stone mill near Florence, where he and his girlfriend, Mary Condon (who is now his business partner), purchased an old farmhouse. The mill took slabs of rock fresh from a quarry, sliced them into manageable sizes for construction, and did some simple cuttings by machine, such as moldings for an entryway; the intricate work was given to Ragan. “I took to it like a duck to water,” he remembers. Among his favorite projects were the signs he created for Davenport Ranch, a tony subdivision in West Austin.

When construction dried up during the bust in the mid-eighties, so did work at the stone mill; that’s when Ragan started Texas Carved Stone. “At the mill I realized there was a good market for someone to specialize in custom work,” he says. From the beginning, he targeted the Architectural Digest crowd—people who would appreciate and be able to pay for the time and skill that went into making, say, a cartouche for a high relief doorway panel. His first project, however, was more abstract: a New Age sculpture garden for a client in Wimberley.

After showing sample pieces to designers and architects, Ragan began to get steady work. His business grew to the point that in 1994 he moved into a large metal building with a five-ton crane that allows him to move heavy pieces of stone without getting a hernia. Today he works on about one hundred projects a year, with fireplaces being the core of his business. His creations range from a simple $2,500 mantel to ones that are two stories tall and can cost ten times that amount. Ragan can recreate details in any style, from simple French provincial to baroque wedding cake frills. One of his most ornate pieces was for a customer who wanted a bas-relief of a series of wild animals across the front, including meticulously carved antlers on the deer.

Whenever he is commissioned to create a fireplace, Ragan begins by choosing the right stone. Like a sommelier who notices slight variations in wine vintages, he is attuned to all the nuances of stone, a material that to the uninitiated seems notable only for its unyielding sameness. Here in Texas, particularly Central Texas, there are plenty of varieties. The stone most popular with Ragan’s clients is called Cordova creme stone, which is quarried in western Williamson County. This stone, often used for fireplaces, is soft, is colored tan or white, and contains scattered marine fossils dating back millions of years, to a time when the heart of Texas was at the bottom of the ocean. Although some people see fossils as imperfections and want them patched, Ragan loves to leave them exposed if he thinks they’re beautiful. “Stone is a natural product,” he says. “I think the fossils add character.” Ragan often uses Cordova shell stone, which is even more heavily covered with fossils, to make tabletops that show off the texture and function as massive geology exhibits. Some owners seal the stone since it’s very porous and prone to absorb stains; others place a piece of glass on top.

Ragan also works with gray Lueders limestone, the strongest available limestone and a popular choice for exterior elements, as well as Florence limestone, which has a smooth, finely grained surface that looks like unpolished white marble and is requested by clients who want pieces with a more refined look. And he has recently begun carving with a newly available stone from Big Spring. Called West Texas creme stone, it has a porous grain that is good for fireplaces and comes in pink, coral, and champagne. “I can’t wait to do a pink job,” says Ragan.

After deciding on the stone and ordering it from a nearby mill called Continental Cut Stone, Ragan makes a pattern of every piece that will go into the fireplace (some have as many as 52 pieces). Once the client has approved the pattern, the lines are traced onto the raw stone; then circular saws take large chunks of rock away to bring the piece to its rough form. From there, chisels (some with teeth) and gouges in a variety of sizes are used to further define the forms. One difference between Ragan and early carvers is that his chisel is powered not by muscle but by a pneumatic hammer. Developed early this century, pneumatic hammers use air compression to produce an even, constant impact on the chisel and enable carvers to work faster and with more control (not to mention more noise; the classical music playing in Ragan’s studio is often drowned out by the harsh, staccato pounding of the hammer). “To do something totally by hand is wasted energy, and it costs a lot more money,” he says. “Believe me—if Michelangelo had had one, he would have used it.”

When the chiseling is done, Ragan uses a rasp, or stone file, and sandpaper to finish the piece out. It takes twelve to fourteen weeks for him to complete an average fireplace—even more if he puts it through an aging process. Dousing the pieces with buttermilk and setting them under the Spanish oaks in his yard encourages mold growth. After the surface is sanded, the fireplace has an uneven, mottled look, as if it had been worn down by time and soot over hundreds of years in some grand castle.

Of course, Ragan assumes that all of his carvings will age nicely on their own and that they’ll be appreciated for years to come. “A lot of times I look at some beautifully carved pieces of stone on, say, brownstones in New York, and I wonder who did it. No one knows, because the stone carvers didn’t sign their work.” He won’t suffer such anonymity in his afterlife, for he etches his name and the date on everything. “We often think that after we’re dead one hundred years people will be collecting our pieces,” he says. “We hope they won’t use them for roads.”

Jeannie Ralston has written for National Geographic and Smithsonian.

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