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Just a short drive away, a mother-and-son duo are revitalizing nine acres of historic property in downtown Buda, Texas, and transforming the city into your next weekend getaway. 

By Sarah E. Ashlock, Photos by John Larsen and Caitlin Candelari

Nate’s, a coffee shop and bar.

In the late 19th century, a town by the name of Du Pre, Texas, renamed Buda in the 1880s, captured the growling stomachs of rail travelers as one of the first established cities in Central Texas. Before construction of buildings began—or that of a rail line, for that matter—the true settlers of Buda, Texas, were given land grants from the Mexican government. The land, just south of present-day Austin, sat precariously between two Native American tribes, the Tonkawas and the Karankawas.

Less than 3 square miles in size, Buda burgeoned in the 20th century as the development site of dairy farms, ranches, mills and a railroad depot. A recent estimate from the U.S. Census Bureau puts the city’s population today at more than 15,000. Needless to say, the area has seen staggering growth since its tally of only a few hundred citizens in the 1930s.

Located approximately 17 miles south of downtown Austin, Buda has started to evolve into a close-knit and family-friendly destination for millennials who have been priced out of Austin proper. According to city-data.com, the city’s median age of residents clocks in at 33 years old.

A Real Fixer Upper

Dodi and Saenger Ellis

In 2017, the Texas Historical Commission recognized Buda as an official Texas Main Street city for the town’s commitment to protect its historical roots while also meeting the community’s needs. As Buda’s small businesses flourish in support of this mission, one mother-son duo is partially responsible for creating the town’s renaissance.

Meet Dodi Ellis and Saenger Ellis, the owners and operators of Buda Mill & Grain Co., a development on about 9 acres of land that sits adjacent to the railroad that slices down Main Street. As old modes of business give way to the new, the appearance of BM&G today is a stark contrast, a revelatory change to what the site looked like just a decade ago. On the acreage once sat dilapidated silos, barns, offices, a feed store and storage buildings. One of the most notable sights that remains today is Buda’s first cotton gin, which was later turned into a dairy feed mill in the 1950s.

“Everybody has had stories about this place,” Dodi Ellis says, remembering that once, a retired Buda fireman recounted to her how he used to clean out the silos in the summer, telling her, “It was so hot!”

Today, more than a handful of businesses operate in the redeveloped and ready-to-lease spaces. String lights twinkle between the buildings by the silos, enhancing the property’s outside appeal. There’s a natural flow between the boutique shops, restaurants and office spaces, allowing visitors to stroll at their leisure and discover newfound favorite spots.

Dodi Ellis recalls kids having “corncob fights” in the streets in the old days when the grain silos still held and sold grain. While there are no corncobs or grain to be found anymore, part of what sets BM&G apart as a new development is that Dodi Ellis and her son don’t disregard the history or the importance of the site. Rather, they prioritize the utilization of the site’s materials in the construction of its new buildings. Transformation instead of demolition is integral to their design process.

Many of the buildings’ interiors feature reclaimed wood from the feed store, and some of the old railroad tracks now serve as parking-space stops. While the site’s silos and affinity for restoration might remind you of Waco’s famed Magnolia Silos and the HGTV show Fixer Upper, the Ellises established their unique style a couple years before the show initially aired.

“We knew we wanted to save the original footprint,” Dodi Ellis says of the property.

To them, that meant preserving everything possible, such as original sidewalks. Rather than simply tearing down and building up a new structure from scratch, they took the slow road and made conscious renovation decisions that required a certain level of patience and creativity.

The result: You can’t escape history when you’re strolling the grounds of BM&G. In the Ellises’ office space, even the walls tell a story.

“Originally, it held some grain, so the grain would sit against the wall and change the quality of the wood,” Dodi Ellis points out.

What passerby sees of the remaining grain silos.

Part of the joy that comes from years of the duo’s thoughtful planning and hard work stems from the property’s bountiful surprises. Dodi Ellis mentions a faded ghost sign they discovered on the old cotton gin, a brick building structure that will soon be used as a restaurant.

“For years, we just had no idea what it said,” Dodi Ellis says.

Eventually, they figured it out: Buda Gin Company.

They also uncovered a concrete footer with the date 1927 written on it, as well as rails from the railroad that date back to 1916.

Most astonishing, though, is the molasses. Piped between the buildings, the syrupy goop would be mixed with the grain to make cattle feed for dairy farms in the 1940s and ’50s.

“When we were doing parking, we’d come across pipes still filled with molasses,” Dodi Ellis says.

Cutting the pipes would warm the contents, allowing the molasses to flow as though it was fresh. Of course, when one stumbles upon decades-old buried molasses, one must sample it.

“It stuck with you,” Saenger Ellis says of the taste.

Dodi Ellis recalls, “They dared me, standing behind me, [chanting,] ‘Try it! Try it!’ It was a taste that would not come off your tongue.”

A Family Affair

The BM&G property has been in the Ellis family since the early 1960s, when Dodi Ellis’ grandfather purchased it. Dodi has sisters and a brother who are tied to the acreage too.

“When we started, we had no idea what we were going to do,” Saenger Ellis says. “There was always a picture of my grandfather’s drawing [of BM&G]from the ’80s that had all the businesses built out.”

The drawing reimagined the site as a converted shopping destination. With that image in mind, the Ellises rolled up their sleeves in 2011. While both brought natural talent and unmatched ambition to the project, they weren’t your average developers or renovators.

“It was so scary,” Saenger Ellis says. “It’s hard when you start off and you have no concept, no one really behind it and no tenants.”

He was 21-years-old when he and his mom first started working on the redevelopment project.

Dodi Ellis had an art-history background and a career in photo styling for magazines like House Beautiful and Outside. She had also spent time working with an interior designer.

“We’re not big-time developers,” Dodi Ellis says. “No one thought we’d get this done. … We just love this property, and my mother loved this property.”

People’s skepticism of the property making a comeback was well-founded.

“It was an eyesore,” Dodi Ellis says, recalling a time when drivers would pass by with one hand covering their peripheral view to avoid seeing it. Considering such scars as the rotted siding and a 6-foot-high chain-link fence around much of the property, some residents wondered about the safety of the area. But the Ellises believed in it.

In the beginning stages of their modern-day renaissance, Dodi Ellis and Saenger Ellis earned a $5,000 matching grant from the Buda Economic Development Plan to work on the site’s exterior. The two worked on what now houses Salon One 12, both feverishly painting the walls themselves and attaching old wood to the ceiling. When a tenant on the property complimented the distinct, layered aesthetic, the Ellises knew the design direction they needed take. Today, the variety of patina and airy elements provides the property with a much-needed welcoming atmosphere.

Many found it hard to fathom there were just two people designing, cleaning and managing the site. When the Ellises fell behind paying a specific tax bill, even the IRS couldn’t believe there were only two people in charge.

Later, after they finished fleshing out the bakery and salon on the North corner of the site, they started work on the third building, a coffee shop and bar called Nate’s. The City of Buda required a civil plan to estimate parking concerns, which, in those beginning days of BM&G, proved to be a costly endeavor, coming in at about $10,000.

“We thought, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s expensive,’ ” Saenger Ellis remembers.

But undaunted, the family managed to gather the funds.

“I put in a little, he put in a little, Mom put in a little,” Dodi Ellis says.

They also spent a month selling several hundred thousand pounds of scrap metal that was on the BM&G property and family ranch, which covered the final salon touches, as well as drafting the civil plan. Fast-forward six years, and they’ve accomplished no small feat.

A Vision

Dodi Ellis’ mother and Saenger Ellis’ grandmother, Gay Dahlstrom, always had a fondness for the property. After all, she had lived in Buda since 1937. Dahlstrom had a fervent desire to conserve the historic significance of BM&G, as well as her family’s ranch property, which she turned into a conservation easement.

Before Dahlstrom passed away in 2014, she saw her BM&G vision come to fruition, with the help of her daughter, Dodi, and grandson, Saenger.

“That was a huge, unexpected gift to get to be with my mom,” Dodi Ellis says.

The Ellises had spent the past two decades living in Santa Fe, N.M., a city known for its rich culture and creative architecture. What spurred their return to Buda?

“We were looking for a quality of life that made our lives richer,” Dodi Ellis says.

The Assemblage Contemporary Craftsman Gallery was one of the first redeveloped buildings to open on the site.

With that in mind, they developed BM&G with what they wanted to see and find in their community.

Since then, the team has restored and renovated many of the dilapidated buildings on the property. With an eye for design and a staunch belief in maintaining each building’s historic integrity, they have spent the last several years giving new small businesses a place to call home. Currently, Buda Mill & Grain Co. houses a salon, a bakery, a coffee shop and bar, a bike shop, a yoga studio, a consignment store, an art gallery, a boutique and a soon-to-be-opened ramen-noodle restaurant.

Throughout the years, the Ellises have worked with a handful of architects but have found it challenging to strike a perfect synergy with an outside source. From the exterior, BM&G features farmhouse elements elevated with contemporary details, such as rusty signage, steel-framed windows, high ceilings and native landscaping. While the Ellises have drawn inspiration from their Texas surroundings, they’ve also been influenced by the historic Pearl Brewery’s redevelopment in San Antonio, a site that serves as a role model for BM&G, functioning as a mixed-use space that combines industrial and historic elements while drawing in both residents and tourists.

In order to help tenants envision the BM&G design and implement cohesion, the Ellises completed the finish-outs in the first few buildings, making the interior-design decisions, from flooring to wall coverings. Now they work with the tenants, who can customize and implement their own vision.

Amy Krell, owner of the newly opened, and very hip, Ellipsis Boutique, chose BM&G for a reason. As Dodi Ellis walks in the space, she compliments Krell’s choice of whitewashed wood and white brick on the walls.

“I knew instantly that both their vision and mine for the space would work together seamlessly, bringing an open, bright space with mixed, simple textures,” Krell says, adding that she chose to repurpose the previous buildings’ wood floors for her boutique’s dressing rooms.

A Charming Curation

With BM&G’s 27,000 square feet of leasable space, another component of the Ellises job extends beyond the design. In addition to Dodi Ellis’ breathtaking photos and blog entries on the BM&G website, {budamillandgrain.com}, they must also lease finished spaces to tenants. A bystander would easily have a sense that the duo is extremely selective, as the current tenants show the Ellises’ well-rounded and thoughtful choices.

“So many merchants we talk to that have businesses downtown are like, ‘We need to define Buda and make it this charming place that people just want to keep coming back to,’ ” Dodi Ellis says. “That is our intention on who to choose to put in the mill.”

As a result of the Ellises being careful instead of quick to choose tenants, these businesses, just like the silos that tower beside them, are here to stay.

Customers and tenants have naturally come about, either from just driving by or from word-of-mouth.Childhood friends and co-owners of the Assemblage Contemporary Craftsman Gallery, Theresa Jones and Jacquie Hollis Martinez, have fond memories of purchasing feed and hay on the property, so they found BM&G a natural fit for their art gallery. 

“We knew through Dodi and Saenger Ellises’ vision and aesthetics, BM&G would be the perfect backdrop for our own venture,” Jones says. “It was a journey of two small-town girls coming back full circle to their hometown and being able to be a part of a revitalization project for future generations to enjoy.”

Dodi Ellis credits an architect who used the term “third space,” as a key characteristic of BM&G’s development.

“We naturally have two places, our home and our work,” she explains. “So, the philosophy of the third place embodies a social environment in which we can connect with our community.”

For BM&G, that could be a Saturday bike ride hosted by the onsite bike shop, a quick bite at the ramen spot or a midday hot-yoga class.

A Bright Future

While a significant portion of BM&G has been built out, construction continues. Among the oak trees and the Mexican sage, you’ll find people breaking a sweat to support BM&G’s vision and revive downtown Buda. Saenger Ellis remembers the manager of Nate’s, the onsite coffee shop and bar, making a simple request when getting married on the shop’s patio: “Can you guys please just stop jackhammering?”

The Ellises, as well as residents and representatives from the City of Buda, hope with continued revitalization efforts, the city will be a day or weekend destination for those coming from Austin, San Antonio and the Hill Country.

There are still plenty of common misconceptions about Buda, like the complaint that it’s far away from Austin, although it’s only about a 10-minute drive from Slaughter Lane to the Main Street exit off I-35.

“There’s a conception that it’s the suburbs, a little sprawl and ranch land,” Saenger Ellis says. “That’s the exciting thing. We’re just on the cusp of really growing because Round Rock, Georgetown and Pflugerville, [Texas,] is where the growth went to first, and [those cities are]getting pretty packed.”

For longtime Buda residents, a concern is that the town and BM&G will become congested and overgrown, like Austin suburbs to the north.

“I think it’s one of those things that’s scary for people until they actually see it,” Saenger Ellis says.

“We’re not bulldozing and creating Austin,” Dodi Ellis says in assurance. “We kept Buda. It’s part of the collective memory.”

After all, the goal for Dodi Ellis and Saenger Ellis is to cherish the community they already have, not create an entirely new one. The act of cleaning up the buildings and restoring them with a sense of purpose, nurturing the property while also shining a spotlight on Buda’s history is what this family project is all about.

 

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