Posted by: Monica Gagnier on July 16
A couple of years ago, I decided to search the Internet for the right piece of stained glass to put in a transom window of a circa 1900 red brick cottage.
I found a great one at a Web site for an architectural salvage firm in Gonzales, Tex. I sent an e-mail asking what it would cost to ship the piece. I didn’t really expect to hear back since there are many “ghost” Web sites for companies that have gone out of business. However, the next day I received an e-mail from Brad Kittel, who owned Discovery Architectural Antiques.
Kittel explained to me that I was better off looking for stained glass in my neck of the woods because the shipping and insurance costs would make the piece I wanted prohibitive.
In poking around the Discovery Web site, I became fascinated by Kittel’s sideline — using salvaged materials to painstakingly build “Tiny Texas Houses.” The idea struck me as an oxymoron, because of the old saw that “everything’s big in Texas.”
I wondered who would buy an exquisitely crafted 600-square-foot house for roughly $45,000 and how Kittel and his employees went about building a structure where the wainscoting is made from recycled doors and nearly everything else comes from recycled materials.
I periodically e-mailed Brad Kittel if I thought I might be driving across country, but I never had the leisure to swing deep into the heart of Texas on Route 10, where he is located about an hour east of San Antonio.
However, I became determined to make the trip after reading a story last month about a Brookings Institution study that rated San Antonio as the most recession-resistant city in the country.
In 2007, I imagined that someone might buy a Tiny Texas House and stick it on his property as a guest house or artist’s studio. Now, after seeing folks living in tents near the Ontario (Calif.) airport earlier this year, I wondered if Kittel’s creation might be the ideal shelter for the downturn.
Despite our e-mails, it wasn't as easy to connect with Kittel as I had expected. I assumed that I would call him when I got into town and that he would direct me to his operation. However, I was left to my own devices (which, at that point didn't include the Internet or GPS) after Kittel didn't answer his cell phone.
I decided to make the best of things and drive into downtown Luling and walk around. If I didn't hear back from Kittel, surely someone would know how to find Tiny Texas Houses. But first, a little shopping was in order. Luling has a farmers' market, which sells local produce and crafts. I decided to stock up on one of my favorite Texas delicacies -- pickled okra.
After walking around the downtown shopping district and learning that I had missed the town's annual "Watermelon Thump" by just a couple of days, it was time to start asking directions. I went into a cute coffee shop, decorated in what Texans call "ranch" decor, and immediately learned that Tiny Texas Houses was along the frontage road of Interstate 10, just past the exit that I had turned on to drive into Luling.
It was a good thing I was well-rested because Kittel and I spent several hours exploring the 140,000 square feet of showroom and warehouse space at Discovery Architectural Antiques in Gonzales, the next town over.
During the course of our tour, I observed that Kittel has a photographic memory of sorts. When I asked why he doesn't have an inventory-tracking system, he said, "Well, the tags would just fall off, and anyway I can pretty much remember where everything is."
Before he opened his architectural salvage business in 1996, Brad Kittel was in the real estate and development business in Austin. "I could pretty much remember everything about a house -- where it was, what it looked like inside, as well as how it was built," said Kittel, who specialized in Austin's inner city old houses.
While I was visiting, Kittel was putting the finishing touches on a Tiny Texas House that was going to be an Ayurvedic massage studio in Austin. But it was still missing a front door. While we were inspecting the vast inventory in Gonzales, Kittel found a Victorian-era door bordered by brightly colored pieces of stained glass. He threw it on the back of the truck and brought it back to Luling. It was just the kind of door I'd like for my house.
As we were pulling out of the parking lot, I spied a pile of marble gravestones. "Have you been robbing graves?" I asked, pleased with my wit.
"That's what some people in this town thought. Truth is, I bought the inventory of a tombstone maker who closed down."
"But what about the graves that have a year of death on them?" I wanted to know.
"Those were repos."
This was mind-boggling. I knew that cars could be repossessed; it never occurred to me that tombstones could.
If Discovery Architectural Antiques provides the raw materials for Tiny Texas Houses, the charm and decor are supplied by a Scottish woman by the name of Bryl. Her influence is felt as soon as you walk in the door of the company office in Luling.
There, in the corner, is a collection of antique doorknobs lovingly (there is no other word for it) displayed in a glass case. This is only the beginning of Bryl's handiwork.
I've seen lots of would-be decorators try their hand at "shabby chic" or "country cute," but I've never seen it done as tastefully as Bryl has. They may be small, but the Tiny Texas Houses on display in Luling looked mighty cozy, thanks to her eye for whimsy and detail.
After traipsing around Luling and Gonzales, I was starting to get hungry. Since I was in the heart of Texas barbecue country, I was hoping we would adjourn to one of the barbecue joints in Luling or maybe even visit the famous Black's Barbecue in nearby Lockhart.
It was not to be. Both Kittel, who looks years younger than his 53 years, and Bryl are devotees of raw foods. Texans who don't eat meat? I know they exist in nearby Austin, but in Luling, I was surprised to find them.
As I got to know Kittel and Bryl better over the course of the afternoon, which did include a meal, I inquired whether Tiny Texas Houses might one day evolve into a Tiny Texas Town -- an oasis of like-minded souls dedicated to preserving architectural elements and eating raw foods.
In fact, it turns out there is a blueprint for a Tiny Texas Village, but Bryl and Kittel are more optimistic about finding fans of architectural salvage to live there than raw foodists.
In the meantime, Kittel wants to expand his business outside the Lone Star State with a new model that allows the roof to be separated from the bottom of the house. That will allow the Tiny Texas Houses to be shipped more easily. Right now, the typical height of 14 feet is too tall to clear most overpasses when the structure is on the bed of a truck.
Obviously, Tiny Texas Houses is in expansion mode. When I asked Kittel whether the recession had hurt or helped his business, he said, "Anything that forces people to downsize isn't that bad in the long run. Now, the short run, that's another story."
As the U. S. economy slows, the story is often told through broad statistics. In this blog, BusinessWeek reporters travel the country to uncover the stories of how individuals are coping with the downturn.