The Cottonland Castle: A Restoration Story


Chip and I have a long history of taking on unusual projects. Every once in awhile, one of us spots some deserted place that quickly catches our attention: an old church, a boarded-up houseboat, or an empty home that’s fallen on hard times. Any beauty these places once held is usually hidden beneath decades of neglect and jungles of weeds. Yet, despite their various states of disrepair, to us these places tend to radiate a certain unexpected charm.

Chip and I don’t always see the same potential in a new project, at least not at first. Sometimes I’ve seen something in an old run-down place that Chip didn’t and vice versa. Since early in our marriage, Chip has dreamed of restoring one place in particular near downtown Waco. Around town, it’s known as Cottonland Castle. Completed in 1913, it looks as if, once upon a time, somebody in Europe packed up a fairy-tale fortress and shipped it off to begin a new life in the American West. It’s the kind of place that prompts people passing by to stop and stare, exchanging thoughts about all the stories it could tell.

The first time Chip drove me by the old abandoned house, I watched his eyes get big, and I could see excitement building as he looked up at the castle’s muscular gray walls, stone tower, and imposing front door. I knew in that instant that this place had found its way into his heart. Yet when I looked up at the downtrodden castle, all I could see was an incredibly daunting project—not to mention the place looked haunted. At that point, though, the castle wasn’t even on the market. And for nearly two decades, Chip watched and waited, persistently putting in offers whenever the castle was relisted—each one passed over for someone else, while very few improvements appeared to be made.

We’d drive by often, and Chip never ceased dreaming aloud about how fun it would be to restore the house to its former glory. Sure, he had heard rumors of the water damage inside and the serious plumbing problems and the tangles of knob- and-tube wiring. But those things couldn’t keep this dreamer from dreaming and imagining what it would be like to breathe new life into the old place. Despite its condition, Chip couldn’t help imagining what Cottonland Castle could be. “Someday,” he’d tell me. But all those years, I never could see the old house through the same lens as Chip.

Fast-forward to 2019 and suddenly “someday” is today. This year, we purchased Cottonland Castle, and for the first time in the many years that Chip’s had his eyes on this property, making it ours finally felt right to me.

Chip likes to say that I’m a “slow yes,” but I can’t help but wonder how often I’d be a “hard no” if it weren’t for his resolve to see past the current state of something to what it could be. Chip saw the beauty and potential in this place years earlier than I did, but he never gave up, and because of that, we now get to make this castle beautiful again.

No doubt about it, this is a fixer-upper unlike any other we’ve ever tackled. Even though we haven’t the slightest idea of what it will become, what Chip did know all along, deep in his bones, and what I have learned to see too, is this: If you look past the cracks in the masonry, past the rotted floorboards, past the wilderness taking over the backyard, there is a lot of beauty to be found in this old castle.

With each new project that Chip and I take on, I’m always reminded of just how essential this discipline is, to look past the facade of what seems impossible, beyond the blemishes and imperfections that might crowd my first glance. While that comes naturally for Chip, I often have to remind myself that there’s beauty to be found in everything, even a musty old stone house. I have to consciously see past the inevitable failures and the seemingly insurmountable process of doing. Almost every day, or even several times a day, I have to choose to look beyond the imperfect and incomplete, toward a goal achieved or a dream realized. And not only as a designer. This shift in perspective has also become transformative for me in every area of my life. Resolving to look beyond the surface of things, for better or worse, past the messiness, the rough-around-the- edges parts of our lives, is how we get to discover our untapped potential, our own diamonds in the rough.

Right now, there’s no knowing exactly how this harebrained adventure will turn out, but the dream—Chip’s dream from so many years ago, the dream of what this wonderful old home could become—that dream is still very much alive. Mostly because Chip and I have learned to be faithful to the process. We’ve known intimately the reward that’s waiting for us on the other side, the payoff that comes with a willingness to dig in, to fight for something within a project or within ourselves that we may not even be able to identify. And to trust with abandon that there’s beauty to be found in everything.

Historical photo courtesy of The Texas Collection, Baylor University

Photography by Cody Ulrich

Floral Design by Emily Reid