Take a visual tour of the famous Victorian fixer-upper. Video by Ross Hailey
Take a visual tour of the famous Victorian fixer-upper. Video by Ross Hailey

In Focus

A stay at Chip and Joanna Gaines’ perfectly fixed-up Magnolia House

By Stephanie Allmon Merry

sallmon@star-telegram.com

October 05, 2016 2:46 PM

Two green blocks stared back from the screen like a traffic light signaling, “Go. Go.”

Could they be? Vacancies?

Chip and Joanna Gaineses’ Magnolia House famously sold out through the end of the year just hours after reservations went online last February. But here it was a Monday in mid-July, and as I poked around the vacation home’s website, consecutive green blocks on the reservation calendar meant it was available the next Sunday and Monday nights.

Hmmmmm. Two nights at $700 each, plus tax, would cost more than $1,500. In McGregor. Not even Waco. McGregor, 20 minutes south of Waco and nowhere near anyplace else.

I closed out of the website, waited a minute, then pulled it up again.

Green blocks.

I could almost hear Joanna asking, “Are you ready to see MY fixer-upper?”

Who gives a shiplap what it costs? I pulled out my MasterCard and texted some girlfriends. We were taking a road trip to the Magnolia castle to live like HGTV royalty.

 

Building a home-improvement empire

For anyone who has been living under the TV instead of watching it for two years, Chip and Joanna Gaines of Waco are the hottest non-Kardashian couple on television right now. Their reality-remodeling show, Fixer Upper is reportedly the most successful HGTV show ever. More than 25 million viewers turned in to watch the third season of the series, the network says. Season four begins Nov. 29.

But the show was just the beginning.

The Gaineses have built an empire under the company name Magnolia that started with remodeling and real estate and now includes a home goods market, bakery and garden shop in a renovated grain silo complex; a furniture line; rugs; paint; throws; pillows and, coming soon, wallpaper. And on the 2017 horizon: their first restaurant, a newly renovated breakfast, lunch and brunch spot in Waco’s historic Elite Cafe.

October is a big month for Chip and Joanna. It kicked off with a “Silobration,” a three-day festival to celebrate Magnolia’s first year at the silos.This week, they launched the first issue of their own quarterly home- and lifestyle-focused magazine, The Magnolia Journal, published by Meredith Corporation (of Better Homes & Gardens fame). And their highly anticipated memoir, The Magnolia Story, hits shelves Tuesday.

The Gaineses’ following is not so much cultlike as megachurchlike. Everyone digs Chip, 41, a garrulous goofball with a toothy grin, sandy-hair mop and self-deprecating sense of humor, for whom every “demo day” is Christmas Day. Everyone hearts Joanna, 38, the exotic beauty (of Korean, German and Lebanese descent) with a design mind that could dream up a rustic, farmhouse-chic remodel of a cardboard box — complete with a “fun” kitchen island and sliding barn doors.

Chip grew up in Colleyville, went to Grapevine High School and attended North Lake Junior College in Irving before entering Baylor. In Waco, he earned a business degree, started a successful lawn-mowing business, began flipping houses and, most importantly, set his sights on Joanna Stevens, who was working at her dad’s Firestone tire store and starring in its commercials. They’ve now been married 13 years and live on a 40-acre farm outside Waco with their four school-age kids, all of whom appear on the show.

Chip and “JoJo’s” wholesome lifestyle and melt-your-heart chemistry — whether they’re joking about his “dad bod,” bantering about who will call a client with bad news or setting up sweet surprises for each other — are as much a part of their appeal as the fact that they brought the term “shiplap” out of the 19th century and into a hashtag. Apart, he knocks down walls and she hangs giant, antique clocks on new ones. Together, they work miracles on castaway spaces and forgotten places — like the city of Waco itself.

In one of the first stories published about them in 2014, when Fixer Upper was just breaking ground, a Star-Telegram writer said, “He plays a doofus to her diva, and they remodel homes. Theirs is the world of Magnolia.”

Two years later, it’s a Chip-and-Joanna world, and we’re all just living in it. If you stay at Magnolia House, you get to sleep in it, too.

 

A love connection

Magnolia House started as a fixer-upper on Fixer Upper. In each episode, Chip and Joanna show clients three houses in disrepair, give them visions for beautiful remodels, then go to work on the one the clients choose. When a family looking for a home in McGregor turned down the big white Victorian, Joanna got the idea to turn it into a vacation home. Chip signed on, and they bought it for $190,000.

“From the first moment I saw it, I could envision bringing it back to life,” Joanna says on her website. (Through their spokesman, they declined our request for an interview.) “I loved the story of the house.”

The 2,868-square-foot home was built by a banker in 1892 and owned by descendants of the original family until the Gaineses bought it.

The 2,868-square-foot home was built by a banker in 1892 and owned by descendants of the original family until the Gaineses bought it. They called it the “Wild West House” on the show because, they said, it “sometimes served as a makeshift cash repository when money was being transferred via stagecoach.” The property once included other buildings in the back yard, including servants’ quarters, a wash house and an outhouse. Some of the bedrooms were rented out to traveling soldiers in the early 1900s.

“The design inspiration for this house was taken from my own home,” Joanna says on the website. “I wanted it to feel like our farmhouse so, when guests stay here, they feel especially welcome.”

The Magnolia House is on a corner in the heart of McGregor.
Ross Hailey rhailey@star-telegram.com

They completed the renovation late last year, revealed the property on a Fixer Upper holiday special, and invited their parents to be the first guests. While it’s been called a “bed-and-breakfast” on the show, Magnolia House is not actually a B&B. It’s a vacation rental that sleeps up to eight people, and the whole house must be booked for at least two nights in a row.

Another misconception: Chip and Joanna don’t run Magnolia House. That job belongs to Rob and Marianne Ward, sweet grandparents from Waco who tend to the home and its guests with the same warmth and generosity that the house exudes. They live on the property in a pretty “fixed up” carriage house that also was featured on an episode earlier this year.

Up to 35,000 Chip-and-Joanna fans each week journey to Waco to visit the Magnolia Market at the Silos complex. For many, the pilgrimage includes a drive down U.S. 84 to find Magnolia House, stop and take photos from the sidewalk in front. But they’ll just get as far as the wrought-iron fence around the property.

Only those who book stays receive the key code to walk through the door, into a Fixer Upper fantasy.

 

Shiplap dynasty

Carrying a haul of wine bottles that outnumbered my friends and me, we entered Magnolia House like it was a sanctuary: quietly, reverently and with a sense of awe for the wonders we were about to experience. “Don’t touch anything. Don’t move anything.” We wanted to take photos of every room, every detail — including the beds, so we could make them to Joanna’s exacting standards the next morning. It was like walking onto a movie set (or in this case, a TV show set).

My friends ranged in Chip-and-Joanna devotion from “Joanna is my spirit animal” to “It’s my mom who has the real Fixer Upper problem.” In fact, two friends called their mothers almost immediately; one FaceTimed a tour of the entire house. We fan-girled as we imagined Joanna placing the magnolia wreath on the living room wall and squealed as we discovered the upstairs coffee bar. Two of us debated whether the staircase railing was too contemporary for Joanna’s usual farmhouse aesthetic — until someone pointed out it’s the exact banister in her own house. Therefore, perfection.

And, oh, the shiplap.

“It’s Shiplap Disney World,” I declared in the midst of white wood slats that covered walls and ceiling near the entry, thinking this had to be the new “happiest place on earth.”

The heart of the home, the gathering space where we’d spend most of our time together, was the living room. At sunset, prisms of light streamed through the original leaded windows in the front door, making it the prettiest time to photograph this light-filled room. Later, we’d close the shades and gather around the coffee table for hours of girl talk. To create the spacious living room, Joanna — who, as fans know, has a penchant for knocking down pesky walls — removed one, reconfigured the entry and added a cozy reading nook beneath the staircase, creating one open, seamless space at the front of the house.

Behind a curious-looking door was a smart TV on a cart, ready to be rolled out and plugged in. Upon opening our first bottle of wine, we watched one episode of — surprise! — Fixer Upper, which was queued up and ready on the DVR. Chip and Joanna don’t have a TV in their home; none is displayed as furniture in Magnolia House, either. Need more entertainment? Open the cupboard of board games and engage in some friendly Monopoly or Candy Land competition.

The curious-looking space with the TV was not, as we first thought, a closet. It was a working elevator, which is not only an ingenious way to hide the television but makes the two-story house manageable for those with stair-climbing challenges. As tempting as it was to slide the screen door shut and ride up and down, we remembered Chip doing this on the show and pretending to get trapped. It was all a joke on Joanna, but we stuck to the stairs anyway.

Down the hallway in the dining room, an original built-in china cabinet painted matte black contrasted with a rustic, white-distressed table set for eight. Well into our stay, we broke our “don’t touch anything” rule and turned over dishes, serving pieces and chargers to read labels. Turns out Joanna likes Target and West Elm as much as the rest of us do.

Furnishings in the dining room include an antique grandfather clock case and rustic table in distressed white.
Ross Hailey rhailey@star-telegram.com

Magnolia House is equal parts vacation home and idea show house. One idea we obsessed over stood in the dining room: an antique grandfather clock case — not the clock, just the case that the clock would go in if there actually were a clock. It looked like something people (like Chip!) would stick their head through for souvenir pictures.

A full kitchen equipped with stainless steel appliances meant we could have brought groceries and cooked to our hearts’ content. But all we really needed was a refrigerator for storing Mexican food leftovers, microwave for heating to-die-for cinnamon rolls from the Gaineses’ bakery, and wineglasses kept on floating shelves high above the custom concrete countertops.

The kitchen, with stainless steel appliances and concrete countertops, allows guests to store groceries and cook meals.
Ross Hailey rhailey@star-telegram.com

Tucked behind the kitchen was the most painstakingly organized laundry room imaginable. Everything got its own bin labeled in a pretty script: phone chargers, laundry detergent, fabric softener, even the iron.

Two of the five bedrooms extend from either side of the living room, and they are two of the prettiest rooms in the house. Near the front door, a bedroom with the other restored fireplace has a queen bed with a custom wooden headboard.

Joanna loves to decorate with words –— quotes and signs and favorite phrases. Walls in this bedroom are decorated with famous motivational quotes hung with clothes pins. In the second downstairs bedroom, a sign on the wall says, “Always keep your beautiful imagination and exquisite humor.”

A second bedroom on the ground floor has two single beds and features enlarged windows, white sheer window treatments and suspended bedside tables.
Ross Hailey rhailey@star-telegram.com

This room is modeled after Chip and Joanna’s daughters’ bedroom. Two side tables descending from the ceiling between two twin beds create a showstopping focal point. This delightful little bedroom was the first one to be claimed by two ladies in our group.

More charming surprises awaited upstairs, where the rest of us slept. A landing area at the top of the wooden staircase was turned into a spacious bedroom suite with a four-poster, queen-size bed. Inside the top drawer of an industrial-style dresser were four sleep machines, should anyone like to fall asleep to the sounds of crashing waves or sprinkling rain instead of the silence of the country. On either side are tiny attic bedrooms, one of which had been used as a closet when the Gaineses bought the house.

A coffee bar is another gathering space ustairs.
Ross Hailey rhailey@star-telegram.com

My favorite room of all was the upstairs coffee bar. Originally a kitchenette, the room got a new tile floor, shiplap and cupboards painted in a rare burst of color — turquoise. A Keurig machine, a variety of Torani syrups and coffee mugs, and a drawer full of tiny coffee creamers allow guests to customize each cup. From a bistro table and chairs by an upstairs window, we could spy tourists as they slowed, stopped and photographed.

And this happened a lot.

“Your inner princess is coming out,” one friend said about the 10th time I waved from a window inside to people on the sidewalk. There were more visitors than usual on this particular late-July weekend.

The Magnolia House, and a park across the street, were PokeStops in the popular Pokemon Go game.

The Magnolia House, and a park across the street, were PokeStops in the popular Pokemon Go game. Groups of teenagers and kids with parents stopped in front of the home, and the only way to tell the difference between Pokemon-hunters and Magnolia House-hunters was whether they looked up from their phone screens.

One morning, a petite Asian woman lingered on the sidewalk outside. I waved back from inside a front window and took her picture. We wondered where she might be from — a local resident, perhaps, or a visitor from far away? We’d learn later she was actually Joanna’s mom. She walks by every Monday morning to say blessings around the property, we were told.

 

Gratitude to the Gaineses

Chip and Joanna are not regular visitors. But that doesn’t stop Magnolia guests from leaving heartfelt messages addressed to the couple in the guest book. Page after page conveyed genuine feelings of gratitude and joy, whether they traveled from Alabama for Mother’s Day, Des Moines for a 40th birthday or Omaha for a girlfriends’ getaway.

Guests leave heartfelt messages for Chip and Joanna Gaines in the Magnolia House guest book.
Ross Hailey rhailey@star-telegram.com

Before our trip, when I emailed Marianne to ask what there was to do at Magnolia House, she told me most people go there to relax. There was no pool, no hot tub. The town of McGregor doesn’t exactly buzz with night life. We big-city girls wondered if we might get bored. Not a chance. Not with all there was to discover in each nook and cranny. Not with a long breakfast at the Coffee Shop Cafe down the street (courtesy of Magnolia House). Not with antiques stores to browse and a fantastic cupcake bakery down the street.

And certainly not with the Magnolia at the Silos complex to explore, about 20 minutes away. Hours can be spent shopping for Joanna’s favorite decor, gardening items and delectable baked goods (with a 25 percent-off coupon for staying at Magnolia House).

A view of the silos and bakery from the roof of Magnolia Market.
Ross Hailey rhailey@star-telegram.com

On a VIP tour of the market, we stopped in Chip’s office and got to take photos from the market’s rooftop. Families with young kids played in the grassy courtyard and ate lunch from the food trucks lining the property. (The gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches and mac-and-cheese dishes from The Cheddar Box are worth another trip to Waco.)

With enough context from the show, other homes featured on ‘Fixer Upper’ were easy to spot as diamonds in the rough.

Before we headed out of town, one friend and I drove through several Waco neighborhoods to find other homes featured on Fixer Upper. With enough context from the show, they were easy to spot as diamonds in the rough. And there’s a lot of rough. As bucolic as Waco looks on the show, it has many more broken-down eyesores that could use the Chip-and-Joanna magic touch.

This surprised my friend. “I didn’t think there was much of Waco left to fix up,” she said as we drove through an older neighborhood in the heart of the city. With at least three more seasons planned, it’s easy to believe this neighborhood could look different in a few years.

Rumor has it that Chip and Joanna are working on another vacation home in the Waco area.

Rumor has it that Chip and Joanna are working on another vacation home in the Waco area. Their spokesman told Indulge, “There are a couple of homes that we would consider doing another vacation rental but nothing official at this time.” Clearly, there’s a desire. When Magnolia House reservations for 2017 went live in August, dates immediately booked up through early July. Fans who missed their chance to book should check the website frequently, though. Two other parties before mine canceled, making the red dots on my dates turn green.

Green for go. Green for the envy of HGTV fans everywhere. Green for money well-spent and for time well-spent in Chip and Joanna’s own fixer-upper.

Stephanie Allmon Merry: 817-390-7852, @IndulgeDFW

The Magnolia House

323 S. Madison Ave., McGregor, www.magnoliamarket.com/stay. $695 per night; two-night minimum stay. >> The vacation home is booked until July 2, 2017. But check the calendar on the website often; when parties cancel, reservations open.

Second annual Silobration

Oct. 6-8, Magnolia Market at the Silos, Waco. >> The free three-day weekend event will celebrate Magnolia’s first year at the Silos. The festival will feature handmade crafts and artisan goods, as well as food trucks, baked goods, lawn games and evening concerts. Updates and more information at https://magnoliamarket.com/silobration.

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