The Grackle

Observations, Reflections and Miscellany from the Wacoan

Touring the Cottonland Castle

A Native Wacoan Reflects on a Texas Castle for the Bucket List

2 years ago

By Emily Ober

When someone asks you to describe landmarks in Waco, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the ALICO building or maybe Baylor or even the Silos.

Photo courtesy Magnolia

But when you ask me, I think of the little castle nestled away on Austin Avenue that I’ve admired since childhood when my days were filled with princess movies and fairy tale dresses.

As I stepped up to the 10-foot tall, 400-pound wooden door and pulled back the heavy brass knocker, I realized that I was fulfilling a lifelong wish. My imagination ran wild as to what I might find on the other side.

As I stood there, I also thought about the history of the place and how it’s almost a metaphor for the city of Waco itself.

Dubbed the Cottonland Castle, this historic home’s story began in 1890 when John Tennant bought the land. He only completed the basement and floor before running out of funds.

Ripley Hanrick took over the construction in 1906, but the castle wouldn’t be complete until 1930 when Civil War Captain Alfred Abeel hired Roy E. Lane to construct the castle. Modeled after a small castle on the Rhine River in Germany, this peculiar addition to Waco is a special piece of history.

Lane also designed other prominent features of the Waco skyline, including the Hippodrome building, the Grand Karem Shrine which will soon house the Magnolia hotel, and he even collaborated on the ALICO building.

Photo provided from Magnolia with Baylor permission.

After passing through different owners over the decades, the castle fell into disrepair. With graffiti staining the original wooden floor, wallpaper ripped from the walls, and old wiring hanging from the ceiling, the castle needed a lot of work to bring it to the glory it deserves.

The goal of Chip and Joanna when they took on the colossal project in 2019 —  to save as much of the original castle as possible, but still make it livable for a family today — has resulted in a beautiful home that brings history to the present.

It’s staged in all the furnishings for a modern family with historical touches scattered throughout, giving it a feel of a museum.

The castle boasts four bedrooms, three-and-a-half baths and seven working fireplaces. Many of the old rooms had to be restructured to accommodate a modern family, including moving the kitchen from the basement to the first floor and turning the mother’s dressing room into a luxurious master bath. Rooms like the butler’s pantry and the servant’s room have been reimagined into a small kitchen and a card room respectively.

Sprinkled throughout the rooms are many historical items not set to a specific decade. It combines vintage items found throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The guide emphasizes why this is called a “Historic Tour,” as there is no specific date attached to the décor.

As I tour the castle, I’m in awe of the restoration process that saved so many facets of the castle, including the Honduran mahogany panels lining the walls, Caen stones from France, and Carrara marble from Italy.

But the guide is quick to remind us that not everything in the house is perfect, and this was something that Chip and Joanna had to come to accept. They had to embrace the imperfections.

This is seen in the impressive fireplace in what is now the dining hall which still has Alfred Abeel’s crest engraved in the stone, alongside the heights and names of the various children who have grown up in the castle.

It was that remark by the tour guide that made me think about how the restoration of the Cottonland Castle is much like the restoration of Waco itself.

When I was growing up, Downtown Waco was a series of empty buildings that looked beautiful on the outside but neglected on the inside.

Those gorgeous facades that Roy E. Lee brought to the Waco skyline were mostly forgotten in a city that needed a second life.

Fast forward a couple of decades and today, downtown is now a gathering place for locals and tourists alike.

Small, locally owned shops have popped up on every corner, and more is still to come. Visiting Waco has become a dream for many people. Much like the castle, the restoration of downtown brings these beautiful old buildings to modern life while still retaining what made them special.

The city has a vivid history that is illustrated in Cottonland Castle. Built during a time of prosperity, then falling to disrepair, and now revived for a second life. This tour is a must-see experience for both locals and visitors before it’s gone.

Tours run Monday – Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. until October 29. Tickets cost $50 per person with 20% of the proceeds going to The Cove, a local nonprofit that provides a safe space for homeless youth. This cause is special to the Gaines. “It’s an honor to get to unearth and restore beauty and help create home for families, but we also have a responsibility to take care of the children in our community that may be experiencing homelessness,” Joanna said. Get tickets here.