A Delectable Restoration

Chef Ken Wilkinson bought a crumbling Texas bank and transformed it into a thriving chocolate shop and bistro

CocoaModa is a gourmet chocolate business in Calvert, Texas.

Credit: Will van Overbeek

Here's a surprise: Classically trained chefs may just be the perfect people to restore historic buildings. Like architects, they have jobs that demand time and patience and the understanding that if something goes wrong, they'll have to start over from scratch. Great chefs have a deep appreciation for fine ingredients and materials. And they recognize that restorative feasts, like restored buildings, leave a lasting impression.

Ken Wilkinson knows all these things. A chef for more than 40 years (he honed his skills in Swiss and English kitchens before moving to the United States in 1983), Wilkinson has tackled several home renovations as well as the restoration of a 50-foot teak-and-mahogany yacht. But his most recent project, an 1874 bank building in Calvert, Tex., was his most ambitious, most expensive, and most fulfilling yet.

What draws an expat English chef to a small (pop. 1,426) Texas town two hours from his home in Houston? Real estate, of course. For years, Wilkinson and his wife had been mulling over the idea of opening a chocolate shop and factory. Elizabeth Wilkinson had drawn up business plans and completed cost analyses, but the right commercial space proved elusive. After a year and a half of fruitless searching in Houston proper, a real estate agent persuaded Ken to drive to Calvert to check out a "heck of a find."

It wasn't. But just down the road, he spied what he calls "the most remarkable building." It bore a For Sale by Owner sign with a phone number. Wilkinson drove home to Houston, ditched the real estate agent, and drove right back to Calvert to investigate the corner building that would ultimately house CocoaModa.

"What I saw was a ghost town that was untouched and unkempt," he remembers. "But it was also very pretty insofar as you've got all these incredible Victorian places and very few of them have been done up. I thought if we led the charge, we might interest others."

Tools of the Trade

In the two years it took Ken Wilkinson to restore the Calvert bank building, he discovered several products he recommends without reservations:

Hunter Ceiling Fans: Practical for commercial or residential spaces with high ceilings, they can be reversed seasonally to draw warm air up or blow heated air down.

Sherwin-Williams Paint: Red Barn (SW7591). "It covered beautifully, and looks elegant even lighted at night,” Wilkinson says. "It's also known for durability."

Prosoco: "Their brick sealant was indispensable on this job."

Super Glue: "I even used it to repair one of the historic windows in the bistro!" Use only to repair clean breaks on non-porous materials. supergluecorp.com

Elizabeth Wilkinson admits that initially she did not want to go to Calvert: "It was just too far from our home. But the minute we laid eyes on the building, we knew this was it. It was on a corner with the only traffic light in Calvert, and we could afford it. The fact that it needed an enormous amount of renovation ­didn't intimidate us in the least."

Originally a bank, the structure had been used as a post office, a barber shop, a dental office, and finally a succession of antiques stores. With each new tenant came a change in interior or exterior details, sometimes both. "During the post office days," Wilkinson learned, "a loading dock with the most awful double doors replaced a wonderful set of double sash windows along the side of the building, and during the dentist office days the interior was redesigned to include more small rooms. At some point the concrete floors were covered with plywood and linoleum tiles."

The Wilkinsons couldn't wait to restore the 2,000-square-foot space. "We were adamant that the building would be architecturally and historically correct," he says. But finding a contractor to accept such a project proved difficult. It was 2006, the economy was booming, and the only available contractors proved expensive. "I felt I had no alternative but to do it myself. After all, I wanted top quality at the lowest cost," Wilkinson says.

He hired extra help for the concrete and roofing work but supervised just about everything himself. The scope of the project was stunning. Local workers had to deconstruct and rebuild an entire exterior wall because of deteriorating mortar. ("We could literally pull the bricks out by hand," Wilkinson recalls.) Structural members behind the lathing  had to be replaced. And there was that rusted tin ceiling. Wilkinson came up with an eminently practical solution. "First, I removed the deteriorated sections from the front area and replaced them with the good ones from the back," he says. Never one to waste material, he cleaned the damaged tin panels, filled holes with an epoxy mixture, then sanded, primed, and repainted the tin before reattaching the panels to the ceiling. "The result," he says, "is a ceiling that looks new and at an affordable cost."

Almost every piece of lumber from the demolition was reused or repurposed. Lumber from doors, for example, became framing material. Other salvaged pieces found their way into a new second floor and a flight of stairs. This was not just a cost-saving measure. "Older lumber is seasoned, has few knots, and is much stronger. And a 2-by-12 is a full 2-by-12, not 1½-by-10½, as is the case with modern lumber," Wilkinson says. "Plus, every time a dumpster is emptied it costs money and adds to landfills. If you only need a small dumpster, and rarely empty it, you're financially ahead of the game."

Wilkinson makes the restoration process sound fairly simple. But there were pitfalls and delays. One wall had to be rebuilt by hand three times because the 100-year-old bricks weren't symmetrical. The pouring of concrete had to be postponed because of severe rains. And there were some extraordinarily painful surprises. Wilkinson lost part of one finger and broke two others as a result of an accident at the table saw. "I thought, 'You bloody moron, how could you do that?'" he remembers. "A chef with one of his fingers missing? At least it was my left hand; I am right-handed."

It took more than two years (and a hefty percentage of their personal savings), but with the help of family, friends, and some complete strangers whom he now counts as friends, the Wilkinsons got the job done. Last September,  CocoaModa opened as a fully functioning chocolate shop and bistro. And Wilkinson is thrilled with the results. "Our efforts turned out to be a galvanizing force behind the rebirth of the downtown area," he crows. "Beyond that, I'm fully confident that if you come to my site 500 years from now it will still be standing, and people will say 'Ken Wilkinson did that, and he did a fine job.' "

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