Chip and Joanna Gaines reviving homes and civic pride in Texas hometown
Welcome to Waco… smack dab in the heart of Texas and the home of the hit HGTV series “Fixer Upper.” For four seasons now, Chip and Joanna Gaines have been renovating older homes in the area, transforming them from dated and often dilapidated dwellings into dream homes.
In the process, they’ve showcased the best of Waco: the Brazos River that runs through town, the stately brick buildings of the 1,000 acre Baylor University campus, and the city’s tallest building (once the tallest west of the Mississippi), the 22-story steel-reinforced, circa 1911 Alico Building, which withstood a 1953 F5 tornado that leveled much of the downtown area.
The Gaineses also own Magnolia Realty with locations in Waco, Austin, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, and their pièce de résistance, Magnolia Market at the Silos which opened in October 2015 to huge crowds. You could call it a store, but it’s more than that. It’s a destination for the entire family.
Seeing the Silos and Waco on the series that seems to run three times a day every day, I grew more and more curious, to the point of buying a round-trip ticket to Austin, renting a car and making a beeline to Waco. “Talk about random,” said my daughter Chelsea who accompanied me. But in the course of three days we had a ball, y’all.
Leave it to Joanna Gaines to spy two huge old and rusty silos on the outskirts of downtown and think, “that’s where I want to open a market.” And no, she didn’t do a thing to renovate the rusty silos — their authenticity is what drew her to the site. Like much of her fixer upper homes, Gaines finds ways to celebrate a place’s historicity, while adding charm and function.
Chip Gaines was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico and grew up in Dallas. Captain of his high school football team, he went to Baylor on a football scholarship. Joanna lived in Wichita, Kansas, and moved to Waco as a teen when her father acquired a Firestone tire shop. Joanna, who graduated from Baylor as a communications major and was a college intern in New York for the show “48 Hours,” worked in the tire shop and often appeared in its TV commercials. She considered taking over her dad’s shop someday, but then she met the affable and entrepreneurial Chip who was already busy flipping houses.
In their first years of marriage, the couple flipped homes, many of which they lived in at the time, and Joanna had a small home goods store, The Little Shop on Bosque, which drew quite a following and was a precursor for Magnolia Market. A friend submitted photos of one of the Gaines’ house flips to the popular blog, DesignMom.com, which were seen by television producer, Katie Neff. In early 2012, Neff was on the phone with Joanna, asking if she and Chip would be interested in a television show. Neff and her production company came out that fall to shoot the pilot and life took off for Chip and Joanna — and all of Waco.
The 20,000-square-foot Magnolia Market is filled with items meant to inspire the feeling of home. Next door is Joanna’s Silo’s Bakery where I purchased the “Shiplap” vanilla cake. Pilled high with frosting, it was dense, moist and delectable. We arrived at 9:30 a.m. when the line was short — later in the day, that line, like others in the complex, would require ques and stanchions to handle the crowds.
There’s a large play area for kids, with plenty of soccer balls provided, flower and vegetable gardens with plants clearly labeled, a seed and grain store and a collection of colorful food trucks, featuring foods from Waco’s top restaurants. Many look like “tiny houses” and one is a converted Airstream trailer. The food that comes out of these tiny trucks is big on flavor, such as the macaroni made with award-winning Brazos cheese and a refreshing watermelon and mint salad, perfect for a hot August day.
The Silos has completely changed the face of Waco, replacing the image of the 1993 standoff and siege of cult leader David Koresh and his Branch Davidian compound with a much happier story.
“I think what the Gaineses have done for Waco is instill pride in our community,” said Susan Morton, tourism manager for the Waco Convention & Visitors Bureau. “They’ve changed the perception of how we see ourselves.”
Locals call the tourism boost “the Magnolia Effect.” The Dr. Pepper Museum across the street from the Silos has more than doubled in attendance over the past two years and the cross-town Cameron Zoo has seen a 20 percent increase in business.
We stayed at the Courtyard Marriott, where each night I collapsed onto a most comfortable bed and was grateful that there was such a thing as air conditioning. On the last night of our stay, the hotel filled with families who were delivering their freshman on “move-in day” at Baylor. The entire city is BU country, with plenty of banners and “Sic ‘em Bears!” posters throughout town. The hotel is well located, just across the street from the Brazos River and its world-famous suspension bridge. In the evening, we strolled over to the bridge and admired Robert Summers’ “Branding the Brazos” sculpture of 15 longhorn cattle, a cowboy and a vaquero, depicting Waco’s days as a Chisholm Trail stop.
The city now has a free Silo’s loop trolley tour around downtown; a self-guided “Magnolia Trail Tour” that includes directions to several of the “Fixer Upper” homes, along with the Gaines’ favorite vendors and contractors. Armed with the tour app on my iPhone, Chelsea and I set off to see the sites and meet up with the local celebs.
We found that business was booming in nearby Crawford for Jimmy Don Holmes, who fabricates metal art with sayings such as “The best is yet to come” or “The most wonderful time of the year.” As we climbed the front steps to his shop, a pickup truck pulled up and the driver leaned out the window and said, “Howdy there! You lookin’ for me?”
“Are you Jimmy Don?” I asked.
“Sure am!” And with that he popped out, extended a large ruddy hand, and was most happy to answer my question, “How’s business?” Turns out that Jimmy Don had two employees in 2013 and one metal cutting machine. Today, after multiple appearances on “Fixer Upper,” he’s up to 30 workers and seven cutting machines.
Another regular on “Fixer Upper” is carpenter Clint Harp, a native of Atlanta, Ga., who moved to Waco a decade back to attend Baylor, which is where he met his wife, Kelly. After graduation, the couple moved to Houston where Kelly opened a baby clothing shop and Clint went into medical sales. But when Kelly was offered a full ride graduate scholarship in American Studies at Baylor, Clint decided it was time to pursue his life’s dream — carpentry — and the couple moved back to Waco.
Clint began by volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, after becoming familiar with the program through his grandmother who worked for President Carter as a scheduler and greeter at his presidential library.
“President Carter had a retirement party for her,” Harp said. “And a few days before she died, he called her. We put the phone up to her ear and he spoke some comforting words to her and told her that he and Roselyn sent their love. President Carter was very involved with Habitat for Humanity, so I wanted to give back and it was a natural fit for me.”
But volunteering wasn’t putting bread on the table, so some friends recommended that he contact a guy named Chip Gaines who was flipping a lot of houses in Waco and might need some help.
Harp placed a phone call to Gaines but didn’t hear back. “He probably figured, ‘who’s this guy?’ so I shrugged it off and just kept plugging along.”
Shortly thereafter, the Harps stopped for gas and in the opposite bay was a Magnolia Realty truck. Harp asked the driver if he might know how he could reach Chip Gaines. (Since the show was not yet on the air, Harp had no idea what Chip looked like.)
“I’m Chip,” was the friendly reply and the two quickly hit it off. Gaines ended up ordering several furniture pieces from Harp and invited him to appear in the pilot episode of “Fixer Upper.”
That was in February of 2012. By September, the first episode of “Fixer Upper” was on the air. Since then, Clint figures he’s been on 50 episodes over the past five years. Kelly has also appeared on the series and the two couples, all Baylor grads, have become fast friends.
Now Clint is embarking on his own series, “Wood Work’” filming over the next 12 weeks and airing in early 2018 over the DIY Network. His woodwork includes table legs, candlesticks, bowls, wall designs, clocks, doors, headboards, benches and his favorite, tables.
“I’m a sucker for a good table,” said Clint, who has designed tables as long as 17 feet for the show. He loves to work with old wood and often finds lumber stacked in “burn piles” around the town. “It’s a Texas thing,” he said. “People have acres of land and sometimes they gather up all the wood into piles that are bigger than a house and set it on fire. It’s legal here. Well, I’ve been known to traipse through those piles and pull out some mighty fine pieces of old barn wood.”
The Harps now own two adjacent buildings. The Harp Design Co. showroom features furniture and accessory items that Clint has made and home décor goods that Kelly has curated. It is housed in a former Habitat for Humanity building that Clint first rented for $25 a month, then purchased for $10,000. (Yes, $10,000.)
A two-story adjacent home is now Harp House; it’s a five-bedroom, 4.5-bathroom vacation home that the Harps rent over VRBO.com for $550 per night, weekdays; $650 on weekends.
“Before it was abandoned, the house had been a four-plex and it was truly awful,” Harp said. “It was filled with trash, dilapidated floors and walls, and even rats.”
Clint and Kelly wanted to see this fixer upper restored in hopes of seeing the whole neighborhood come back to life, so they became “clients” of the Gaines. The Harps had purchased the home for $25,000 (yes, $25,000) and during the restoration Clint contributed several pieces to the house, including the front door, stairs and kitchen island. The Harps and their two kids at the time (they now have three) lived in it for a couple of years, but with the show’s success and their studio next door, they found they needed more privacy.
Similarly, the Gaineses turned one of the fixer upper renovations featured on the show into a vacation rental: Magnolia House in McGregor, Texas, is a five-bedroom, two-bath late-1800s home that rents for $695 a night.
Real estate … Texas style
So what does real estate cost in Waco? To answer that, we spent a couple of hours touring areas of the city with Coldwell Banker’s vice president of residential services Kathy Schroeder. With 38 years in the industry and a husband who is a builder, Schroeder knows the territory. We were astounded at what money can buy here. We started out in a beautiful neighborhood along Lake Air Drive where 1950s- to 1970s-era ranch-style homes feature wide lots with magnificent oak trees providing a sun-dappled canopy. These single-level homes of roughly 2,000 to 3,500 square feet on up to an acre of land ranged from $250,000 to $450,000. You can figure about four times that much in San Diego; 10 times that much in Coronado… if you could just import those trees.
One of the nicest neighborhoods just outside downtown is Capital Heights where century-old and older homes go for $500,000 to $1 million.
But the average home price in Waco is just $110,000. Earlier this year, Schroeder and her husband bought a home for $108,000 and sold it five months later for $170,000.
She pointed out that Texas has no state income tax, and as a result property taxes are higher than in California, although there is some relief when you turn 65.
But there aren’t many for-sale signs. Schroeder said it was because there is virtually no inventory. “We were in a recession up until three years ago and builders waited. Now there are 200 new homes under construction, which is a lot for a city of about 200,000.”
She took us on a tour of some of these subdivisions, about 10 minutes out of the city center. Nice homes; mansion homes really – the size of (or bigger than) Larry Lawrence’s former mansion on Ocean Boulevard.
They were beautiful, but I’d much rather have a smaller fixer upper.
If you go…
Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau: wacoheartoftexas.com or (254) 750-8696
Magnolia Market at the Silos: magnoliamarket.com
The Harp House: email@example.com or book on VRBO. (See Episode 5 – The 15th Street Story)
Harp Design Co.: harpdesignco.com
JDH Iron Designs: jdhirondesigns.com
9685 Lone Star Parkway, Valley Mills, TX 76689
Courtyard by Marriott: Marriott.com/waco
“Island Life” seekers find homes in Coronado
It’s not just Waco that’s made it onto HGTV. Coronado real estate broker Scott Aurich of Sun Isle Realty has filmed three episodes of “Island Life” for HGTV, in which he helps clients find their dream home in Coronado.
“When the producers first approached me, they asked if I could work around a price point of $700,000,” Aurich said. “It took them a bit of time to realize that just wasn’t possible — that Coronado’s price point is about $1.2 million and up.”
Aurich said the show aims to depict young couples hunting for a home on islands throughout the world. “We show them three properties, from which they select one,” he said and then shared a secret about the reality of “reality TV.”
“The reality is we work with a client who has already purchased a house,” he said. “And then we film a ‘reenactment’ of them looking at other houses until they zero in on the house that they will buy. Of course, they already bought it!”
Aurich said unlike “Fixer Upper” or the “Property Brothers” where the firm principals are the stars, he stays in the background. “That’s not the format of this show. It’s not about me, it’s about them,” he said.
The three episodes he’s done have shown couples playing with their kids on the beach, boating with friends on the bay and partying on the patios with friends in their new abodes.
Filming each episode requires four eight-hour days, Aurich said. “There’s an eight-person production crew that comes out from New York to do the shoot,” he said. “Director, sound man, lighting director, scouts, assistants…”
“Jim and Kelly O’Connor were the first couple, they bought a home on I Avenue; Kelly and Russ Kindorff, like the O’Connors, also relocated from Scottsdale and bought on H Avenue; and Heather and Drew Goodmanson were the third couple; they bought the most expensive home at $2.25 million.
Aurich said he was approached by the show’s producers to do the shows, which he agreed to as a way to promote Coronado. While he’s not compensated for his time, he says he has come away with great memories. “What’s really neat is that I’ve become friends with all these couples,” he said.