By Tara V. Kohlenberg —
I love driving through the tree lined streets of New Braunfels in the winter month(s). The absence of leaves invites a closer look at the buildings, the rooflines, the architectural details, the landscaping. Oddly, I have always been drawn to the properties lined with mature palm trees. They seem so exotic. As the palms are clearly not native, they must have been chosen to make the properties stand out. One of my favorite palm-lined spaces used to be the property on the corner of Gilbert and Tolle Streets.
One might say, “Oh, that’s a restaurant or tourist place. They do that all the time.” Except these trees are from a time before tourist attractions. They mark the property that was once a hospital. It was the Comal Sanitarium.
In 1920, the Comal Sanitarium Company was formed. Dr. M.C. Hagler and Dr. Arthur Bergfeld initially established the Comal Sanitarium, a privately-owned hospital, in the former Comal Hotel (now Prince Solms Inn). It was run by charge nurse Miss Ida Belle Hulette, R.N. The temporary hospital boasted a first-class operating room, sterilizing room, twelve private rooms and a large ward for emergency cases. It was open to all doctors.
By mid-1920, a new, modern hospital was being built by A.C. Moeller just a block away on Gilbert Street. Financed by Dr. Bergfeld’s father-in-law, U.S.‘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 by 1921. It was a two-story building, 44 x 80 feet, with a basement and a 10-foot sleeping porch running the length of the building (There was no AC, only the summer breezes to stay cool). The first floor housed ten patient rooms, a large, completely equipped operating room and a smaller adjoining operating space. These operating rooms were said to be top notch and comparable to any found in larger cities. The first floor also had a sterilizing room with steam pressure and an electrical sterilizer. Dr. Arthur Bergfeld’s office was a separate building added later.
The second floor held another ten patient rooms, eight bathrooms and one large ward that could accommodate twenty patients. In the basement, there was a 24 x 44-foot state of the art laboratory. There was also a dormitory accommodating twelve full-time nurses who lived on site. A heating plant located in the basement supplied the building with electrical heating. The buildings had both 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. (In Texas, y’all!) Dr. Bergfeld had studied in Germany for several months and had the latest and largest x-ray machine shipped from Germany at the cost of $4,000 to equip his hospital. This new technology, housed in an x-ray laboratory, operated at 25,000 volts (like that of an overhead trolley car wire – YIKES!) and was said to throw a spark 12 inches long with sounds resembling a “gattling gun.” Double Yikes! Occupying at least two rooms, the machine was used to “cure cancer and other incurables,” as well as see bones and such inside the body. I might have to think about that a while.
Drs. Hagler and Bergfeld took their oath to care for people in their community seriously. Not only did they purchase all of the building materials, furnishings and equipment locally (except for x-ray machine), they had a rule to never turn anyone away. They provided thousands of dollars of charity health care and medicine for those who could not pay. Comal Sanitarium ran a tuberculosis clinic and had contracts with the U.S. Treasury Department to care for sick or wounded ex-soldiers. The hospital was also the site of the Comal Sanitarium School of Nursing, graduating many registered nurses. Dr. Arthur Bergfeld’s son, Jack Bergfeld became a physician and joined him in practice in 1943. Somewhere along the way, the palms were planted as large shrubs along the edge of the campus.
By the late ’40s, the other New Braunfels Hospital, or Krankenhaus, was struggling. It was in an old building and was not doing well. In 1949, the Bergfelds offered Comal Sanitarium to the City of New Braunfels for $48,000. The voters turned it down. Hundreds of people continued to receive care and hundreds of babies were delivered at Comal Sanitarium. Yes, yes. I know. Every child ever born at Comal Sanitarium, including me, has been chided about being “crazy” because the hospital was called a Sanitarium (which in recent years has been likened to an asylum). However, the term sanitarium or sanatorium, as used in the 1920s when this fine establishment was built, is defined as a place for extended convalescence or to regain health. Many hospitals of that time were called sanitariums.
Comal Sanitarium closed in July 1965 after the death of Dr. Arthur Bergfeld. Burglaries and vandalism caused much damage to the structure and equipment. The property was sold to J. B. Harmon of El Campo. It sat empty with 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 under the name Gasthaus New Braunfels. They razed the building and built the new multilevel stone, wood and glass structure that you see today, named The River Restaurant. The palm trees stayed. The restaurant was to be the first phase of a planned resort on the Comal River, with 100-unit motel planned in the second phase. The restaurant, with food service managed by Anita Jaroszewski, opened in the Spring of 1976, featuring German cuisine an on-site bakery and sausage room. It was a culinary success. The restaurant lasted about three years before closing. The hotel units never materialized. There have been numerous reiterations of the restaurant: Treetops, a BBQ place, a music venue and others, before becoming the current seasonal tube rental place. There are fewer palm trees around the edge of the property, but I still like them.
Sources: Sophienburg Archives; Photo Collection of Tommy Ortiz