With its Victorian mansions and rambling plantations, the historic town of Calvert, Texas a short stretch of Highway 6 situated midway between Dallas and Houston is an anomaly in a state where old buildings are frequently torn down to make room for new ones. Many of the buildings that line the street still bear the engraving that marks the dates on which they were erected; most date back to the mid- to late-1800s. The elevated false fronts make the buildings appear taller than they are and lend the quiet town the look of a set from a Hollywood Western.
I rode into Calvert expecting to see tumbleweeds, shootouts, and cowboys tying up horses outside a saloon. In fact, Calvert is an authentic Old West town that thrived when the cotton was high and foundered once slavery was abolished. Near the end of the 19th century, Calvert was the fourth-largest city in Texas, but a reversal of its fortunes (due in part to damaging floods in 1899 and two devastating fires not long after) left it somewhat of a ghost town, frozen in time. There was little business development in the decades that followed and many of the beautiful old homes in the area fell into disrepair.
But recently, the sleepy town has begun to attract a population of artists and other creative types from Houston, Austin, and Dallas (each about a two-hour drive away), who are drawn to its quiet and quaint charm. Some are attracted to the fixer-uppers Victorian houses that have intriguing histories and good bones.
Architect Walter Qualls and his wife, Jenny, were drawn in particular to one house in Calvert's Historic District that was built in 1900 on a block shaded by mature oak trees. They renovated and converted the rambling, porch-draped Victorian house into the charming Pin Oak Bed & Breakfast (503 Pin Oak St . , 888-367-8096, pinoakbb.com).
If Calvert is known for anything besides architectural treasures and Southern hospitality, it is for its proximity to the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum (1000 George Bush Drive West, College Station, Texas) and Texas A&M University; both are about a 25-minute drive from Calvert. The four guest rooms at Pin Oak are occupied most weekends during football season, and if you are lucky enough to snag one, Mr. Qualls will cook you an elaborate breakfast.
During the week, breakfast is a simpler, continental affair, since a small town such as Calvert often calls on its residents to wear many hats. Mr. Qualls also serves as the town postmaster, apart from his work as a licensed architect and duties as hotelier. He recently supervised and assisted with structural and technical matters for a new ultra-gourmet chocolate company, CocoaModa, opening soon on the town's Main Street. The chocolate enterprise is the passion project of a Houston resident and chef, Ken Wilkinson, and his wife, Elizabeth. The CocoaModa store (518 S. Main St.) now sits on the ruins of a bank. The Atelier (505 S. Main St.) where visitors will be able to view the bonbon production was formerly an apothecary, while the building adjacent was once a bordello. The contractor unearthed relics of the pharmacy's past including bottles filled with mysterious powdered substances. The CocoaModa store and Atelier will open in 2008. And this might be just the beginning of a revitalization of the tiny Texas town. When the Wilkinsons were considering purchasing a home in Calvert, the real estate agent let them in on an exciting piece of news: A chocolate factory was coming to town.
In addition to a slew of antique shops Calvert has been called Texas's "antique capital" Main Street is also home to Mud Creek Pottery (407 S. Main St.), owned by M.L. "Sonny" Moss. The large gallery offering a wide range of glazed, hand-thrown ceramic bowls, plates, cups, and sculptures is just the tip of Mr. Moss's pottery empire. Next to the store is an outdoor haven, a vine-covered seating area where visitors and friends of Sonny's can sit and chat, or meditate to the soothing music piped in through outdoor speakers while gazing at the works of pottery cemented into the exterior wall. Farther down the block there is a large studio where townsfolk rent studio space and ceramics students can take classes in wheel throwing, hand-building, and raku, a Japanese method of glazing pottery that dates back to the 16th century and uses smoke and fire to create patterns.
On the other side of Main Street, actress Lily Langtry is said to have performed in the opera house, which is now a garden that will serve as an outdoor seating area for the chocolate store. Nearby, an old movie theater has been converted into a venue for live concerts. Texans shop at Cowboy Up (acowboyup.com), where they can pick up oversize armoires, leather couches, big horn wall hangings and animal print rugs for their expansive ranches. The shop also sells Western-themed memorabilia, including saddles, cowboy boots, buckles, holsters, spurs and guns, T-shirts, fudge, and random edible items. In the back of the store is an original Otis elevator from the 19th century, which, though greatly desired by the Otis Elevator Company, is not for sale. Two special events every year give attendees a chance to dress in authentic Victorian attire, including the Victorian Tea, Gala, and Street Fair in October and the Victorian Ball in November. The annual Christmas Homes Tour is conducted in early December.
Correction from January 2, 2008:
Walter Qualls is the spelling of the name of the architect. His name was misspelled in an article on page 22 of the December 17 New York Sun.