At work in her Houston home office, Ruth Gay jots notes on a client’s building plans. Occasionally she glances up, scanning her elegant sanctuary for inspiration. Some of the best finds in her salvage of European antiques and stone pieces for her business, Chateau Domingue, surround her. A barrel-vaulted ceiling, clad in 17th-century stone from a French vineyard, casts a butterscotch glow. Three pairs of 18th-century French doors open to the Texas sun. And a stone mantel where generations of French families have warmed themselves today warms Ruth’s creative spirit. "I look for grandness and simplicity," she says of her buying trips to Provence, Tuscany, and Umbria. "I don’t buy anything glitzy or over the top."
These are the words of a woman who admits there isn’t much she likes that’s less than a century old. As Europeans modernize their homes, Ruth gladly searches local flea markets to rescue items—everything from town fountains to simple linens and silver—for her stateside clients.
Photographs by John Bessler
Text by Jennifer Wilson
Produced by Jenny Bradley
When Ruth and her husband, Jack, built their family home 12 years ago, they wanted to incorporate the elements she grew up with—stone flooring, ancient mantels, rustic beams, copper gutters—not only for themselves but for their children. But their search was frustrating, and Ruth ruminated over the lack of sources for such items.
When the kids were older, Ruth, still searching for the elements she recalled from childhood, headed to Europe on a scouting trip—the nanny and her youngest child in tow.
Four weeks and hundreds of miles later, her dream of bringing architectural gems to American soil became a reality. Today, Chateau Domingue is a 5,000-square-foot space that transports visitors across continents and back in time. Chateau doors line the walls, and grand mansion gates are suspended from the ceiling. Ancient stone and tile flooring splays over two acres outside.
Ruth grew up a missionary’s daughter in Europe, and though she moved to Texas when she married, she retained the continental spirit. "People in Europe really stop and smell the roses," she says. "I know it sounds trite, but it’s a way of life that is, to me, more pure. It’s why I decided to bring these elements over here—it’s rewarding to visualize the outcome of the unused pieces we rescue for people to enjoy in their daily lives."
"I’m at my most creative in a dirty, dusty stoneyard in the middle of nowhere, climbing over old rock and looking at pieces on the ground—maybe finding a 17th-century surround that I can visualize in someone’s house, or a spiral staircase on pallets that I know will end up as a completed piece," says Ruth. "It’s not glamorous, but it gets me going more than anything in the world."
Work from the Heart
Ruth Gay developed her reclaimed stone-and-antiques business to share a lifelong passion with clients. "I wasn’t looking to start a business; it found me," she says. Here are her recommendations for creating an inspiring work life.
• Cultivate ideas with care. Know what you love to do, then dedicate yourself. "Forming a business is like having a child: You give your idea life, and then you raise it," she says.
• Sustain your lifelines. "My husband’s support was integral to my success. He realized how serious I was when I asked for a forklift for my birthday."
• Be patient. "There have been many times I’ve questioned myself. Over time, you’ll gain confidence and make better decisions."
• Know you’re a good example. Ruth’s kids often remind her when she’s discouraged: "Mom! You can’t quit. You’re great at this!"
Planning a trip to France? Don’t book a ticket without considering a few helpful suggestions from Ruth Gay.
• La Mirande When Ruth visits Europe during the school year, she keeps her stays brief so she’s not away from the family too long. She makes her headquarters in Avignon, her favorite larger city in Provence, where she stays at La Mirande, a four-star hotel with a cooking school and more than 700 years of history (la-mirande.fr ).
• Eygalières Each summer, she loads up friends and family for a six-week visit to the stone houses and sweet gardens of tiny Eygalières, just outside St. Remy (provenceweb.fr/e/bouches/eygalieres/eygalieres.htm ).
• La Bastide de Marie Ruth mines for inspiration in the neighboring village of Ménerbes, in particular at its enchanting small hotel in a vineyard, La Bastide de Marie (kiwicollection.com/property/la-bastide-de-marie ).
• Crillon le Brave One of her very favorite places is another small town, Crillon le Brave, with its stonework houses and a Relais & Châteaux four-star hotel (crillonlebrave.com ).
For more information on Chateau Domingue, call 713/961-3444 or visit chateaudomingue.com .