Because it was involved in so much of the state’s early history, San Augustine calls itself the Main Street of the Texas Republic. Platted in 1833 deep in what is now called the Piney Woods, the town was once a busy stop on El Camino Real de los Tejas, an early trail network that linked Mexico with Louisiana. During the nineteenth century, streams of American settlers passed through the area or even put down roots. Although the town’s population has dwindled over time from a peak of 2,930 in 1980 to about 1,900 today, tourists still stop by to admire the historic churches and handsome Greek Revival homes. With its brick storefronts and hand-painted signs, San Augustine’s charming commercial district, centered around the 1927 limestone courthouse, seems to have been frozen in the first half of the twentieth century—with one glaring exception.
Right across from the courthouse, wrapping around and atop a modest single-story 1935 home on Broadway Street, lies something genuinely perplexing: a three-story assemblage of observation decks, pointed Gothic arches, and, somewhat disconcertingly, sharp wooden spikes. Some of the spikes, which are between one and six feet long, hang down like fangs, while others jut sideways, as if they were spears ready to stab the air. On the second level, a ten-foot-tall white cross, also rather spiky, is situated next to a statue of a black panther. Beneath the decks, mounted to the windows of the home itself, are hand-drawn portraits of people who seem to stare at passersby. A life-size statue of Jesus Christ, nailed to a plain wooden cross, stands permanently on the lawn beside the house. The material used for the Savior’s skin makes him appear scalded, his face obscured by a crown of thorns.
Gary Brewer, a 61-year-old artist and carpenter, owns and resides in the house and has been constructing the tower of decks above it for the past fifteen years or so, adding a board here, a few nails there, when he can afford to buy new materials. His work isn’t complete yet. Brewer plans to build a fourth and final level, looming about 55 feet high, which will eclipse the height of every other building for many miles, not least the venerable San Augustine County Courthouse.
Though the project has its admirers, not everyone is a fan. When word got out last fall of Brewer’s intention to build a fourth floor, city manager John Camp intervened. “I just want to be careful about letting it become a more imposing feature of the town than the courthouse,” Camp says. “If it gets much higher, people are going to be really mad if I don’t say anything. And then people will think they can build whatever they want right on the square.”
San Augustine has never had any sort of height restriction ordinance; it never occurred to anyone that one was needed. But with Brewer’s creation threatening to disturb the contours of the town’s modest skyline, that changed. Last December Camp placed such an ordinance on the city council’s agenda. Brewer’s plans—already sky-high—were suddenly up in the air.
Betty Oglesbee is sometimes described as San Augustine’s matriarch. A go-getting fund-raiser, the 85-year-old received a 2017 Governor’s Award for Historic Preservation from the Texas Historical Commission for her leadership in preserving the town’s historical buildings, including the local library, courthouse, and old jail. “When Betty wants a project, I tell you, you have a choice,” said John Crain, the historical commission’s vice chair, during remarks at Oglesbee’s award luncheon. “You either give or you move out of the way.”
Oglesbee is not a fan of Brewer’s decks. Last April, a tornado blew through town, uprooting stately pines, obliterating more than forty homes, and razing the white gazebo on the courthouse lawn. “Everybody thought, ‘Lord, maybe it blew away,’ ” she says of Brewer’s construction. “But it didn’t,” she adds with a sigh. “Of course, it was just the Rock of Gibraltar.”
Oglesbee knows Brewer well and considers him a friend, as does nearly everyone who knows him in this tight-knit town. Her late husband, John, often hired him for carpentry projects, including replacing the doors on their home and repairing the camp house they owned outside of town. “He’s a wonderful artist. He’s smart and good, but he’s different,” Oglesbee says. “I don’t want to bad-mouth him, because he’s not a bad person.” Tammy Barbee, who owns the Texas Star Retail Store & Boutique, just around the corner from Brewer’s home, admires his craftsmanship and keen eye for detail. His photorealistic, seven-foot-tall pictures and paintings—mostly depicting women, and one of Jesus—were recently displayed in a jam-packed side room of her store. “He makes the frames for his pictures and everything,” she says. “He’s very talented in all areas.” But she’s a bit tired of fielding bewildered questions about the decks. “Out-of-town people come in, and they think it’s weird,” she says. “It’s beautiful work, but I really wish it was out in the country.”
Brewer, though, has no interest in doing what he does anywhere but in San Augustine, where he’s lived most of his life. He was born in nearby Lufkin and raised in San Augustine, enjoying a typical rural Texas childhood of shooting BB guns, playing baseball, and splashing in creeks. An aunt who painted landscapes praised his sketches when he was a boy, but it was years before he got the artistic bug. He spent much of his twenties traveling throughout Texas, working in construction. Brewer’s specialty was structural ironwork—erecting and connecting steel beams, girders, and columns that form the skeletons of tall buildings. In 1985, when he was 26, he and his wife and their two-year-old son, Vincent, moved to a mobile home on his mother’s land ten miles west of San Augustine. “I wanted to have a home that I knew was a good place for Vin,” he says. Following the move, Brewer abandoned his former profession. Nobody needed tall buildings in San Augustine, so he became the next best thing: a carpenter. These days, he and Vin—deemed “essential” workers during the pandemic—are busy building porches and garages.
And in his spare time, he builds the tower (he bought the house on the town square in 2006). He began to draw in earnest in his mid-thirties after teaching himself to do it. “I never did do anything until my wife and I divorced,” Brewer says. “So then, when I wasn’t cooking and stuff, I began to sit down and draw and sketch a little bit,” most often when Vin was asleep.
Was creating art cathartic, something that helped him through a difficult or lonely period in his life? “No, not anything like that,” he says.
The decks above Gary Brewer’s house.
Photograph by Brian Goldman
The San Augustine courthouse, directly across the street from Gary’s house.
Photograph by Brian Goldman
He doesn’t know how he developed an aesthetic so radically different from that of his neighbors either. He can’t name any artistic influences and doesn’t know how to describe his style, although he isn’t crazy about the fact that everyone calls his work “Gothic” (because, he says, he never wears dark eyeliner or black nail polish). Nor, despite the abundance of Christian imagery in his pieces, does he burn with more religious fervor than many of his neighbors in San Augustine, where there’s one church for about every 95 residents.
Brewer built the first deck in 2006 so he could walk straight from his back door to a hot tub he’d installed behind the house. When he dreamed up a bigger vision for the tower one night—originally topped by a steeple that would stand seventy feet tall—he sketched it out and started building shortly afterward.
The plans changed radically over time, though Brewer can’t specify why that is. The addition of the spikes that bother so many? “I like spikes,” he says, noting that they’re easy to cut with the Porter-Cable and Makita circular saws that he owns. Beyond that, he can’t explain his motivations for making them such a prominent part of his home. “I just like the way they look.”
While Brewer’s vision for the decks will be complete after he builds the fourth floor, it’s not hard to picture him tinkering with them indefinitely. He hopes to rent the upper levels for events down the line, and he might also charge people $5 to have a look around.
He knows that some San Augustine locals don’t appreciate his attention-grabbing hobby. He’s also aware that his tastes clash with the historical character of the downtown district, which the town has invested a great deal in. The Classical Revival courthouse was extensively restored a decade ago through a combination of $4.3 million in state funds and local fundraising efforts by Oglesbee and others. The newly beautified courthouse, rededicated in November 2010, kicked off a downtown restoration movement.
Locals like Oglesbee are also proud of the historic Mission Dolores, which was named a state historic site four years ago. Established by the Spanish in 1717, the site is undergoing extensive renovations to its museum and visitor center half a mile south of the courthouse square. A museum in the county’s old jail, built a century ago, houses Texana collections and artifacts from the region’s history of law enforcement. And the Lewis Railroad Hotel, a two-story former boardinghouse that housed African American railroad workers during segregation in the early twentieth century, is in the process of a gorgeous restoration with a sturdier foundation and new paint, in addition to a rebuilt chimney and roof that became urgently necessary after a tree fell on the building during Hurricane Harvey.
One reason locals have worked so hard to preserve the town, perhaps, is that San Augustine has not always been portrayed in a flattering light. Richard Linklater’s 2011 film Bernie (based on Skip Hollandsworth’s 1998 Texas Monthly story about Bernie Tiede, a funeral director turned killer) labeled San Augustine the “Squirrel Hunting Capital of the World,” populated by “cousin-counting rednecks” with “more tattoos than teeth.” In a June 2018 article about the closing of the town’s only Dairy Queen, the Houston Chronicle quoted a Nacogdoches resident as saying that San Augustine was “the armpit of East Texas.” Even further back, a 1978 Texas Monthly article portrayed it as isolated and awash in social and racial inequality.
Brewer believes his structure should be regarded as part of the town’s self-improvement, and he wishes his neighbors would see it the way he does. “The truth of the matter is, they want everything in the downtown area to be restored to an old-timey look, so my place is a thorn in their side,” he says, his mouth widening into an ornery grin. “I’ve been told there were petitions, and someone went to the fire marshal to get him to declare it a fire hazard.” On another occasion, he says, a San Augustine resident offered to give him free retail space for his artwork if he would just cut down the spikes. He refused.
It’s clear that Brewer enjoys the attention the decks bring. In January he built an elaborate wooden throne (replete with spikes, naturally) and placed it on the top deck, where he can sit like a king and enjoy his sweeping view of San Augustine below. “I am one who for the most part is quiet, in a crowd I am silent, almost unseen, it has been said, ‘one who is hard to figure,’ but inside is an intensity that I cherish and hold dear,” he wrote to me in a text message. “I play out triumphant scenarios in my mind depicting a glorious day when after years of ridicule and opposition I am seen on my handmade throne by all who opposed me.” While joking about his sense of “indulgent grandeur,” he also noted that the meek would inherit the earth, according to his savior, the “Most High.” Soon, if everything went according to plan, there would be nothing in San Augustine higher than his throne.
Brewer long felt that he had one ally in his push against small-town strictures: city manager John Camp. “To me, it gives the town something that nobody else has,” Camp says. “And we should be capitalizing on those things rather than trying to sell only history, which doesn’t sell, frankly.” Still, the increasing pace and scale of Brewer’s decks made Camp nervous. “I have no doubt Gary is the quintessential deck builder, but the city is going to be held liable if the damn thing falls and kills somebody,” he says. (“I’m a reputable builder, and nothing I do is going to fall,” Brewer insists.)
So in December Camp asked the San Augustine City Council to impose a 35-foot height limit on new structures. Anything taller would require an endorsement from a licensed structural engineer, plus a vote of approval from the city council.
On December 17, 2019, members of the San Augustine City Council met to debate and vote on the ordinance. But first, they received updates on a recent playoff run by the high school football team—go Wolves!—and on the town’s Christmas parade. Oglesbee and six other members of the Main Street Advisory Board received engraved ink pens for their volunteer service. Brewer, clad in a camo baseball cap, black leather jacket, and paint-stained blue jeans, slid into a chair at the back of the room.
“Not to pick on Mr. Brewer,” said alderman Mark Liepman, once the height ordinance came up for discussion, “but he does seem to have the tallest thing around. We just want to make sure the darn thing will stay up there under normal circumstances.”
Brewer chimed in from the back row, a break in decorum the aldermen took in stride. “I do intend to get my drawings legally stamped, and anything I do further will be just as sound,” Brewer said. “I believe my corner brings progressiveness and diversity to this little town. In the past, folks said they want this to be a retirement town. I believe this would be a good—”
Camp nodded, cutting him off. “I’m not trying to get into that,” he said.
The motion passed unanimously. Afterward, the aldermen and attendees greeted each other warmly. Even Brewer smiled.
Over scrambled eggs and toast the next morning, Brewer told me he was confident that his building would gain the approval of a structural engineer and the city council. “Artwork for people around here is landscape paintings or portraits of notable people of town,” he said. “Anything extreme or different is just viewed as silly and worthless.”
Brewer doesn’t begrudge those who have opposed his project, though. “They are all good people I have known all my life,” he says, noting that he does hope they will eventually be more accepting of the “progressive change” he brings to town.
On April 27 Brewer presented a hand-sketched blueprint of his decks to a state-registered structural engineer in Lufkin, who gave the plan his seal of approval on one condition: that Brewer double the number of studs, beams, and cross-bracing supports holding up the top level, which he agreed to do. That left one hurdle to clear. The San Augustine City Council would still have to grant permission for Brewer to exceed the town’s brand-new height ordinance. On May 19, the council did just that, voting unanimously to approve his request for a variance.
Barring any obstacles or delays, he expects to complete his masterpiece in the next year or two. Then members of the public will be welcome to join him in the sky above San Augustine. “It’s like somebody said one time,” Brewer notes. “If you build it, they will come.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Gothic Carpenter of San Augustine.” Subscribe today.