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The Castle makes its mark: A look inside before ‘Fixer Upper’ debut

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The Cottonland Castle, as seen from Austin Avenue, was begun in 1890 and has a historical marker. Photo by Rod Aydelotte.

"Are you ready to see your fixer-upper?"

How many times have "Fixer Upper" fans heard Joanna Gaines say those words before the big reveal on their popular home renovation show?

And here I was, standing outside the Cottonland Castle, i.e., Chip and Jo Gaines’ most famous Magnolia acquisition (outside of the Waco Tribune-Herald building, I would argue), with those words echoing in my head.

Five other souls and myself were about to partake in the hour and a half tour of the 6,176-square-foot mansion — which, by the way, could be yours if the price is right.

The building that put the “castle” in the Castle Heights area has been the site of $50 tours of the building and grounds since July, but those tours will wrap up on Oct. 26. That’s a couple of weeks after “Fixer Upper: The Castle” drops concurrently on Magnolia Network, HBO Max and Discovery Plus at 8 p.m. Oct. 14.

Twenty percent of the net profits from the castle tours will go to The Cove, a local nonprofit that works to end youth homelessness.

“The Cove has been an organization dear to the heart of Magnolia for many years,” wrote Amy Gaston, Magnolia’s local director of experiential marketing, in an email. “Their mission to serve youth experiencing homelessness in Waco by giving them a safe place where they can thrive speaks to our own belief in home.

“The work they do to ensure the most vulnerable in our community are cared for and supported is inspiring.”

I pitched to Magnolia’s marketing folks my idea to share the castle story in this October “Dwelling” themed issue of Waco Today. I wasn’t sure they would agree to it since this issue comes out prior to the new show.

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Hosts Chip and Joanna Gaines check out the renovation updates on The Castle, as seen on “Fixer Upper: The Castle, Season 1.” Photo provided by Magnolia.

But thankfully, they did, though with numerous restrictions to avoid revealing anything they don’t want shared prior to the show’s debut. I completely understand that. Magnolia is a brand and they are protecting their product.

That said, it bothered me a bit to know that every other person on the tour was free to snap photos and take video to their heart’s content and share that via social media. But for me, a journalist and editor of Waco Today, I could only grab images and video to use for reference in writing this article.

The images that accompany this story, other than the exterior shots (which also had to get approval by Magnolia), were provided by Magnolia. There are some gorgeous rooms throughout the castle that my prose can’t do justice, but we aren’t allowed to share any images even online until the final episode of “Fixer Upper: The Castle” premieres Nov. 18.

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Even the entrance to The Castle is imposing. This mahogany door stands 10 feet tall and is 4 inches thick. Photo provided by Magnolia.

There’s a conservatory that in every sense embodies the same-named room from the “Clue” board game, right down to the black and white floor.

Likewise, there would be no comments — even via email — from Chip or Jo for this story. I’ve never liked writing a story where I couldn’t at least get a comment from one of the principals. But such is how Magnolia controls its narrative.

I did receive comments from Kristen Bufton, director of design, for which I am grateful.

The color bars on the edges of these pages should reflect Moody Fig, one of the colors of the castle’s palette from Magnolia Home by Joanna Gaines.

Taking the Tour

Upon starting the tour of the castle, we were given a Magnolia fabric wrist band (oh, I think it’s the Moody Fig color!) and a 6-by-6-inch booklet detailing some of the history of the castle and Chip and Jo’s approach to its renovation. The booklet contains a QR code to a 3-D tour of the building to show its level of disrepair just a few years ago.

The Gaineses bought the castle in 2019 after some 20 years of Chip putting in offers that were rejected.

Among the noteworthy facts in the booklet is that original property owner John Tennant started building the castle in 1890 and completed only the basement and first floor. In 1913, Capt. Alfred Abeel bought the castle and partnered with architect Roy E. Lane to finish construction.

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This photo from Baylor’s Texas Collection shows the castle in the early 20th century. Photo provided by Magnolia with Baylor permission.

In 1941, the castle was purchased by the Pipkin family, founders of W.P. Pipkin Drugs. Daughter Pauline Pipkin Garrett was Waco’s first female pharmacist. She later inherited the home, which eventually was donated to a local church.

Between 1991 and 2018, ownership changed several times but few improvements were made.

The castle has three floors, with four bedrooms, 3½ baths and seven — yes, seven — fireplaces. And a tower.

Original materials in the castle include Honduran mahogany paneling, Caen stones imported from France, Carrera marble imported from Italy, and 120 train carloads worth of sandstone.

Our tour guide, Sharon Stokes, admitted she’s one of those “Southern California transplants” who moved to Waco three years ago and began working at Magnolia, initially at the store two years ago.

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The master bedroom’s many windows bring in a lot of natural light and the wood flooring is original to the home, though workers had to scavenge from other rooms to have enough. Photo by Magnolia.

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For Chip and Joanna Gaines, renovating The Castle was a bucket list item. Photo provided by Magnolia.

Stokes shared numerous stories about what Joanna Gaines wanted to preserve with the building, such as how the dining room on the first floor was originally going to be the kitchen. The room suffered a lot of graffiti but the paneling in it was saved.

The master bedroom on the second floor is the only room with original flooring, although those floor pieces were collected from all the other rooms of the house, Stokes explained.

Challenges

The old building faced a number of significant obstacles in the renovation process, said Kristen Bufton, director of design.

One of the top challenges, she said, because Chip and Jo want the castle to be purchased as a residence, was adding central air and heat.

“When we purchased the house, there had never been central air and heat,” she said. “We needed to get creative because of the minimal change we wanted to make to the footprint of the house ... the restoration of all wall finishes/crown/ceiling finishes.

“We worked with a mechanical engineer that was able to work with us and present options and we were able to speak into it from a design standpoint. We landed with a plan that made minimal impact to the floor plan (converted two spaces to be mechanical closets and included only one far down in the house in an inconspicuous location.) It felt like a win-win.”

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Among Joanna Gaines’ favorite rooms in the castle is this renovated bookshelf/library area, complete with a rolling ladder to reach the books. Photo provided by Magnolia.

Creating a space on the main floor for a kitchen was another biggie, she said.

“The original kitchen was located in the basement,” Bufton wrote. “We knew we needed to move this up to the main level to make this house function well for a modern family. We ended up converting the main floor dining room to a kitchen.

“We also used an office located down the hall to act as a butler’s pantry to create more usable prep/storage space for the new homeowners.

“One sacrifice we made was deleting the fireplace in the dining to convert it to the space where the range is located. We actually were able to salvage the old mantel and just install it over the range, which felt like a win.

"We also were able to keep the existing built-in china cabinet in the dining room and showcase it as storage for the new kitchen. The sill height of the windows was tricky since we wanted to salvage all existing windows, but we also needed to run cabinets in front of the window.

“We ended up modifying the bottom sash of the window to be 6 inches shorter and installed the countertops right up to the bottom of the window in order to keep as much of the original window as possible.”

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The paint color Step Stool Green provides a nice balance to the colors in this bathroom. Photo provided by Magnolia.

There were plenty of oohs and aahs by those of us in the tour group and a real respect for the work done to meld the past with the present.

The booklet notes that Chip and Jo repeatedly returned to the castle’s roots during the renovation process by studying the German castle that inspired the original design and discovering how to restore spaces in order to reflect the grandeur of the castle.

Visitors’ Thoughts

Two members of our group, Belinda Coleman and Maureen Wood, are friends from Ohio who specifically made the trip to Waco to visit Magnolia. Their husbands went to Canada for a fishing trip, so the wives decided to travel to Texas. Both had sons stationed at Fort Hood at one point, but only Belinda had been to Texas before.

They came for the week, toured Magnolia, shopped at The Findery and Spice Village, and went out to Valley Mills Vineyards for a wine tasting. They said the castle tour for them almost didn’t happen.

Maureen said they initially didn’t want to pay the $50 ticket price for a tour, but changed their minds.

“It was worth the $50,” Maureen said after the tour ended.

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The carriage house now serves as a place for storage on the castle grounds. Photo by Ken Sury.

Belinda, who lives in Greenfield, Ohio, said the kitchen was her favorite part of the castle.

‘I loved how they brought the past to present times without changing the integrity of the castle,” she said. “I live in a three-generation farmhouse. This tour made me want to put some older pieces back into my home.”

For Maureen, the master bathroom stood out.

“It was so spacious and modern, but still had the feel of an older-style bathroom,” she said. “I assume when the castle was built they did not have indoor plumbing.

“I also loved the painted fireplace in the first-floor sitting room. I liked how she mixed the new with the old.”

Locals might choose to wait until the premiere of “Fixer Upper: The Castle” to see what the Gaineses have done to the castle. But there’s still time for a first-hand visit to Cottonland Castle to soak in the majesty of the building and its rejuvenated look before the tours end.

As a modernized castle, it does not disappoint.

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