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In Texas hills, derelict houses become classy inn

(ran HT, CI, PT edition)

After 30 years as administrators in San Antonio schools, Ed and Billie Miles might have eased into a leisurely retirement. Instead they launched a second career and what friends regarded as a "mission impossible."

Starting literally from scratch, the couple created a unique bed-and-breakfast complex on a tract of brush-covered land where sheep and cows once grazed.

To do so, they moved six old buildings, all built between 1860 and the early 1900s, to their eight-acre site. These included a rundown farmhouse, a rustic grain cabin, a pole barn once used for silage and two abandoned houses that no one else wanted.

Within five years Ed and Billie Miles had _ in the local vernacular _ created a silk purse from a sow's ear. They cleared the land, landscaped it, and remodeled the old structures to create 15 rooms renting for $95 to $125 per night.

"We are house addicts," Ed says, smiling proudly. "An old house turns us on. We want to save it."

Their B&B, known as the Gruene (pronounced Green) Country Homestead Inn, lies minutes from the Guadalupe River, off a farm-to-market road near the Gruene Historic District, a restored 19th-century cotton town between Austin and San Antonio.

Ed, the general contractor, did all the painting, carpentry and roofing himself. Billie, with her natural artistic bent, did the interior decoration.

"We're a team," says Billie, an attractive blonde. "Neither of us could have done this alone."

The transplanted old buildings, like the windmill in their midst, blend into the surrounding Texas landscape. But inside, the units are colorfully chic with all the modern conveniences: king-size beds, mini refrigerators, Jacuzzis, skylights, televisions, wet bars.

Out back, where it doesn't mar the bucolic setting, Ed has even built a swimming pool with a spa.

Billie calls Ed a genius. He calls her a perfectionist.

"I get ornery at times," Ed says, "when I get three-fourths through with something and Billie walks in and says, 'Let's do that over. It's not quite right.'

"More than once I've had to move walls and tear stuff down."

Ed and Billie Miles, both in their 50s, were married six years ago. He was widowed; she was divorced. "I had my eye on her a long time," he admits.

They first put their collective talents to work when they bought a "really rundown house in an expensive section of San Antonio" and restored and redecorated it.

They sold that house for double what they'd paid. Soon thereafter, while driving on Gruene Road, they saw a sign, "For sale by owner," in front of an empty, turn-of-the-century house.

They bought it but had no place to put it. So Ed called on Edwin Hanz, an elderly retired German farmer, who owned the pasture land across the road.

"He, like everyone else, thought I was crazy when I told him my plans to build an inn there. But he agreed to sell when I assured him we would fix everything up in simple, Texas hill-country style."

After clearing the land, Ed and Billie moved their house, a modified Greek Revival structure, across the road and turned it into a handsome B&B with three rooms to rent.

The farmhouse, built in the 1860s, was their second acquisition. Five chic units, furnished with country antiques, have been constructed in this old building. One, an old root cellar, is now a cozy, sunken bedroom "perfect for good sex," Ed jokes.

Building No. 3, the old grain cabin, has been restored as a rustic hideaway for two with bedroom-sitting room combo and a bathroom with Jacuzzi.

Buildings four and five, old, frame "early Texas" farmhouses, were given to the Miles by owners who simply wanted them moved off their land. One, called the Texas House after it was remodeled, contains two lovely suites. The other, the Country House, has four equally charming units.

Ed faced his toughest challenge when he acquired the old silage barn. But he finally restored this in the old German "fachwerk" style once prevalent here and named it Hanz Halle for his friend, the old German farmer.

This is used for banquets and conferences and for serving generous continental breakfasts to guests.

Their initial building period over, Ed and Billie plan to concentrate now on marketing. "Our goal is 85 percent occupancy by 1999," Billie said enthusiastically.

They may also take their first vacation in five years, although Ed said frankly: "I don't think we'll ever slow down. I have lots of plans."