It was after dining in the conservatory of the posh Lanesborough Hotel in London's Hyde Park Corner that Bruce Simon, president and chief operating officer of Omaha Steaks, decided that the century-old prairie farmhouse he was renovating in Nebraska needed a glass room that would capture the feel of Old World Europe.
Simon and his wife, Stacy, had long admired the conservatories of Europe, and the two began a search for a manufacturer who could match their desires.
Their research ended on Maryland's Eastern Shore, the unlikely home of one of a few companies in the world that make custom-designed conservatories that evoke 19th-century Europe.
Tanglewood Conservatories, in an industrial park in Denton, has spent the past two years transforming its relatively low-tech manufacturing process into a lean, computer-driven operation in an effort to keep up with demand fueled by rising real estate values and the return of corporate profits.
Its customers include movie actors, sports team owners, Wall Street financiers and corporate moguls who seek a crown jewel that will set their estates apart from the crowd.
"We'd seen beautiful 100- and 200-year-old conservatories in the U.K., and that's what we were looking for, something that would stand the test of time," said Simon, whose family-owned company generates more than $350 million a year in sales selling gourmet meats and food products nationwide through retail stores, catalogs and the Internet.
Tanglewood recently finished work on the Simons' octagonal conservatory, which offers panoramic views of their exquisitely landscaped back yard.
"The conservatory is like the diamond in the center of the ring," Simon said.
Tanglewood is part of a new wave of small Maryland manufacturers that have found a niche that allows them to thrive as once-mighty manufacturers have shed workers or shuttered plants.
Its conservatories have been added to homes from New York to Shanghai, where $10 million estates are being built to accommodate China's new rich.
Tanglewood's conservatories are in a category separate from the prefabricated sunrooms and kit conservatories that have become popular with some builders and home improvement vendors. The company makes its glass panes, rather than buying them from a vendor, and also custom designs each room from scratch.
Prices range from $50,000 to nearly $2 million. The latter was for an ornate 4,000-square-foot conservatory ordered by a Wall Street banking executive who was adding on to his seaside estate on Long Island, New York. Capable of withstanding hurricane-force winds, the structure has more than 230 panes of glass in its geometrically complicated roof.
A typical Tanglewood conservatory might feature mahogany woodwork, mosaic floors, dentil molding, a curved copper roof and ornate cupola at its center.
Each is different and can take up to six months or more to build. The company only makes about two dozen in an average year.
"I would say that price is way, way down the ladder of what's important to these people as reasons for hiring us," said Alan L. Stein, an artist and architect who founded Tanglewood in the early 1990s with his wife, Nancy Virts.
Gopal Ahluwalia, vice president of research at the National Association of Home Builders, said conservatories and sunrooms are gaining popularity as buyers of luxury homes seek unusual spaces.
The market is small, consisting mostly of homes costing more than $1 million. That accounts for perhaps 1 million homes in the United States, he said.
"People are not buying these [rooms] to meet a functional space need," he said. "It's a lifestyle."
Growing from tradition
Tanglewood doubled its production space in 2000, and again last year. Its sales were about $3 million last year, about 50 percent more than in 2003, Stein said. He expects to double in size again in the next three years.
The company, which began with a handful of craftsmen, has 30 employees and expects to hire more as it grows.
"Of course, boat building and shipbuilding are part of this area's history going back 300 years," Stein said of his Eastern Shore location. "We've got some really terrific craftsmen here such that I'm just awed by them and what they're able to do."
Stein's history is one of entrepreneurship and craftsmanship. As a kid, he spent hours in his father's basement workshop, fashioning such things as primitive computers and a wooden safe with moving parts.
Later, he graduated to building go-carts and mini-bikes with fantastical designs.
"I would take old bikes and cut them up with a hack saw and take them to a body shop ... and for $5 they would weld anything I'd bring to them," he said.
After high school, Stein spent two years studying art before his love for building inspired a change in majors to architecture.
He earned his professional degree from the University of Maryland, College Park and went to work for a local architect in the early 1980s.
Sitting behind a desk proved too stifling for Stein, who started a series of remodeling and design ventures that eventually led to the creation of Tanglewood.
As orders grew, the company started having problems maintaining quality. Parts were being shipped to the wrong job sites, and mistakes were showing up in the manufacturing process. Tanglewood exhibited all of the classic signs of a company outgrowing its roots as a small, seat-of-the-pants enterprise.
"At a certain point, you start to get bigger than that, and it breaks down," Stein said.
The company sought help from the Maryland Technology Extension Service, a business outreach program of the University of Maryland.
A team of consultants dissected the company's manufacturing process and recommended investments in technology aimed at boosting efficiency.
"Bottom line was, we said, 'You need to change your whole concept from house-building to manufacturing, and that was abhorrent to Alan because he was an artistic man and an architect," said John Songster, a senior business consultant for the extension service.
But Stein took the advice, buying software that allows the company to render its designs in three dimensions on a computer, then send the specifications of each part to the manufacturing floor for construction.
A new tooling machine is able to automatically translate those computer instructions into parts, saving employees time that would otherwise be spent guiding wood and metal through machines by hand.
"The concept is that you're actually building it in the computer," Stein said. "We know that if the part fits in the computer, it will fit when we put it [the conservatory] together on site."
By automating some processes, craftsmen are able to spend more of their time doing the old-fashioned detail work that has burnished Tanglewood's reputation.
"They're not cheap," said Michael Metzler, a veterinarian who owns Four Paws Animal Hospital near his home in Seaford, Del. "But when we saw it, we just had to have one."
Adding different value
Tanglewood just began work on a 13-by 21-foot conservatory for Metzler and his wife, Molly, who expect to spend more than $250,000. The room will sit apart from their house on the Nanticoke River in the midst of an English-style hedge maze Metzler constructed himself out of privet. The stone and brick structure will feature leaded glass, mahogany woodwork, a fireplace and spa.
"The woodwork is just beautiful," Metzler said. "It's almost as if the wood is alive."
Buyers of high-end conservatories shouldn't expect an immediate return when they sell their homes, real estate experts said.
In many ways, they are akin to swimming pools. People love them, but they often don't pump up a home's value as much as expected.
"I've been in this business 30 years, and I could probably count on one hand how many of these we've come across," said Sharon Cremen of Cremen Appraisal and Consulting in Harford County's Forest Hill. "You're putting it in not because you care about what the resale value is going to be, but because your heart is telling you to."