I love driving the tree lined streets of New Braunfels during the winter months. The absence of leaves invites a closer look at buildings, rooflines, architectural details, landscaping. Curiously, I have always been drawn to properties lined with mature palm trees. They look so exotic. As the palms are clearly not native, they had to be chosen to bring out the properties. One of my favorite palm-lined spaces was the property on the corner of Gilbert and Tolle streets.
You could say, “Oh, it’s a restaurant or a tourist spot. They do this all the time. Except that these trees date from a time before tourist attractions. They mark the property which was once a hospital. It was the Comal Sanatorium.
In 1920 the Comal Sanitarium Company was established. Dr. MC Hagler and Dr. Arthur Bergfeld originally established the Comal Sanitarium, a private hospital, in the former Comal Hotel (now Prince Solms Inn). It was headed by the charge nurse Miss Ida Belle Hulette, inf. It was open to all doctors.
In the mid-1920s, a new, modern hospital was being built by AC Moeller a block away on Gilbert Street. Funded by Dr. Bergfeld’s father-in-law, US ‘Tug’ Pfeuffer, the hospital was built on three acres located on the banks of the Comal River between E. San Antonio and Tolle streets. The hospital was fully operational in 1921. It was a two-story building, 44 x 80 feet, with a basement and a 10-foot porch running the length of the building (there was no air conditioning, only summer breezes to keep cool). The first floor housed 10 patient rooms, a large fully equipped operating theater and a small adjoining operating space. These operating rooms were said to be top notch and comparable to any found in major cities. The first floor also had a steam pressure sterilization room and an electric sterilizer. Dr. Arthur Bergfeld’s office was a separate building added later.
The second floor contained another 10 patient rooms, eight bathrooms, and a large ward that could accommodate 20 patients. In the basement, there was a 24×44 foot state-of-the-art laboratory. There was also a dormitory accommodating 12 full-time nurses who lived on site. A boiler room located in the basement supplied the building with electric heating. The buildings had hot and cold water.
One of the most historically significant things associated with Comal Sanitarium is that it was the site of the very first x-ray machine in Texas. (Texas, y’all!) Dr. Bergfeld had been studying in Germany for several months and had Germany’s latest and greatest x-ray machine shipped at a cost of $4,000 to outfit his hospital. This new technology, housed in an x-ray lab, operated at 25,000 volts (like that of an aerial tram wire – YIKES!) and was said to throw a spark 12 inches long with sounds resembling a “gattling gun”. Double yuck! Occupying at least two rooms, the machine was used to “cure cancer and other incurables”, as well as to view bones and the like inside the body. Maybe I should think about that for a moment.
Drs. Hagler and Bergfeld took an oath to take the people of their community seriously. Not only did they buy all the building materials, furniture, and equipment on site (except for the x-ray machine), but they made it a rule never to turn anyone away. They provided thousands of dollars in charity health care and medicine for those who couldn’t pay. Comal Sanitarium ran a tuberculosis clinic and had contracts with the US Treasury Department to treat sick or injured former soldiers. The hospital was also the site of the Comal Sanitarium School of Nursing, which graduated many registered nurses. Dr. Arthur Bergfeld’s son, Jack Bergfeld, became a physician and joined him in practice in 1943. Somewhere along the way, palm trees were planted as tall shrubs along campus.
By the late 1940s, New Braunfels’ other hospital, or Krankenhaus, was struggling. It was in an old building and it was not going well. In 1949, the Bergfelds donated the Comal Sanitarium to the city of New Braunfels for $48,000. Voters rejected it. Hundreds of people continued to receive treatment and hundreds of babies were delivered at the Comal sanatorium. Yes Yes. I know. Every child born at the Comal Sanitarium, including me, was chided for being “crazy” because the hospital was called a sanatorium (which in recent years has been compared to an asylum). However, the term sanatorium or sanatorium, as it was used in the 1920s when this fine facility was built, is defined as a place of prolonged convalescence or restoration of health. Many hospitals of that time were called sanatoriums.
Comal Sanitarium closed in July 1965 after the death of Dr. Arthur Bergfeld. Burglaries and vandalism have caused extensive damage to the structure and equipment. The property was sold to JB Harmon of El Campo. It was empty, its only inhabitants being raccoons and other creatures.
In 1975 the property was purchased by a group of investors led by Gaz Green and Melvin Jochec as Gasthaus New Braunfels. They razed the building and built the new multi-level stone, wood and glass structure you see today, named The River Restaurant. The palm trees remained. The restaurant was to be the first phase of a planned resort on the Comal River, with a 100-unit motel planned in the second phase. The restaurant, with food service run by Anita Jaroszewski, opened in the spring of 1976, offering German cuisine, a bakery, and an on-site sausage room. It was a culinary success. The restaurant lasted about three years before closing. The hotel units never materialized. There have been many iterations of the restaurant: Treetops, a barbecue spot, a live music venue and others, before becoming the current seasonal tube rental location. There are less palm trees around the property, but I still like them.