Twinkling lights. Honking horns. People hustling and bustling along about the streets, shopping for the perfect gift — or dressed to the nines, attending a formal event in one of the city’s fancy hotels. Christmas in downtown Waco during the 1950s — or almost any other decade in the 20th century — today seems like a dream.
While a lot of the action took place along Austin Avenue, the Grand Karem Shrine Building, located at 701 Washington Ave., was a popular spot for dances and social gatherings.
“I vividly remember going to Senior Cotillion formal dances at the Karem Temple ballroom in the era when the music of Elvis and the Beatles ruled the dance floor,” said Mary Helen George, a lifelong Wacoan. “Boys wore a rented tux, girls wore full petticoated gowns, and we did the twist to our heart’s content.”
But toward the end of the 1900s, a hush crept in and the lights went out in the ballroom where so many made memories, as it was sold to the county and left unused — until now.
Hotel 1928 — a historic restoration and adaptive reuse of the Grand Karem Shrine Building — opened last month, owned by Chip and Joanna Gaines and AJ Capital Partners. With 33 guest rooms, two restaurants, a cafe, ballroom and rooftop terrace with unparalleled views of downtown Waco, Hotel 1928 offers something nostalgic, yet new, for everyone.
“Throughout the design and renovation journey, our team poured a lot of time and passion into telling the story of our town and finding ways to make guests feel that sense of warmth and belonging,” Joanna Gaines said. “So, it’s our hope that everyone who steps inside this hotel would feel that, and that they’d feel right at home.”
Coordinated with the Texas Historic Commission and the National Parks Service, the Hotel 1928 project has achieved landmark status with the National Register of Historic Places. That’s due to the care taken in preserving original design elements of the building, including the exterior facade and bricks, arched stonework at the entry door, transom windows, Terrazzo flooring and black Venetian plaster walls in the entry and public spaces and French striped wallpaper in the guest rooms.
The hotel is filled with enlarged photographs of Waco’s earlier days from the private collection of James and Mimi Jasek.
“Chip and Jo have led an urban transformation and restoration in downtown Waco that is unlike anything else in the country,” Ben Weprin, CEO and Founder of AJ Capital Partners, said. “Hotel 1928 is an inspiring and meaningful addition to this landscape and will change people’s perception of Waco, impacting locals and travelers alike.”
Two signature restaurants offer guests everything from brunch to lunch to dinner — in two complete settings. The Brasserie, located on the street level, has floor to ceiling views of Washington Ave. and Seventh Street. The menu is “reimagined Texas comfort food” and the pimento cheese with seasoned crackers and the iceberg “steak” salad are two items not to be missed.
Bertie’s on the Rooftop, located on the fourth floor, serves lighter, Texas-inspired dishes that were developed alongside Jo Gaines’ favorite recipes. Outside of Bertie’s, an expansive rooftop terrace has tables with umbrellas and nooks with fire pits — all centered around a bar that serves classic and creative cocktails.
“At Hotel 1928, you can fully immerse yourself in Magnolia’s deeply contagious hospitality and service culture and live in a space that embodies high design,” Weprin said.
On the third floor, the grand ballroom awaits the next generation of party-goers. With 5,800 square feet of space, including a connected 704-square-foot outdoor terrace with more sweeping city views, which George said she remembers well.
“There were windowed French doors that led from the ballroom to a balcony that overlooked downtown Waco,” she said. “We weren’t supposed to go out there, but that made it the perfect challenge for teenagers testing the patience of chaperones.”
Polly Brown played the lead saxophone in a 13-piece dance band called The Saints that performed in the ballroom in the 1980s and 1990s — and also remembers the ballroom fondly, she said.
“We played all over and the Karem Shriners had us twice for their big New Year’s Eve event there,” Brown said. “We played a four-hour dance and we really felt like we were back in the 40s. We played all the Big Band music and the acoustics were great. I’m excited to get back there and check it out.”
An unexpected gem of the hotel is the library, which was converted from the original coal chute into a two-story gathering place with wingback chairs and chess and dominoes sets to play. Two wrap-around staircases lead to this space which is filled with historic books from “Booked Up,” American writer Larry McMurtry’s bookshop. Chip Gaines bought the collection with the intention of honoring and preserving it — and it’s now on display, floor to ceiling, in the hotel library.