By Tara V. Kohlenberg —
I love driving the streets of downtown New Braunfels on a crisp, clear October morning. My favorite streets are the those laid out by Nickolaus Zink and the streets of Comaltown/Braunfels. Some of the oldest buildings in Comal County are located along these streets.
As with anything old, there is likely much more to those buildings than meets the eye. Some are old buildings refreshed with multiple exterior facelifts to keep up with the latest trends, leaving them looking much younger than they really are. Then, there are old buildings that remain the same (historically correct) on the outside, even though the inside has been updated and made more functional by adding electricity and indoor plumbing. These buildings, are the most beautiful. My favorite buildings? Those with hidden secrets, of course. Imagine learning that the building you own holds a treasure underneath!
One such treasure is Eagles Hall. From the outside, it looks like a plain stucco, sort of art deco building with a hodgepodge of multiple additions marked with the year “1922.” But there is more to that story.
In 1870, New Braunfels celebrated the 25th Anniversary of its founding. The parade wound through town and across the Comal footbridge, continuing the festivities on open lots located on South Street in Comaltown. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Heinrich Paul Weichold, an 1845 immigrant, purchased two lots facing South Street. He built a 54-foot by 100-foot hall out of Comal County limestone, complete with a 38-foot by 30-foot stage. It was the largest public place for merriment anywhere around. Did you get that? 1870! That is at least eight years before Gruene Hall was built. Weichold’s Hall served both as a community meeting place and center of entertainment, hosting Turnverein (gymnastics club) events, dances, concerts, meetings, 4th of July celebrations, masquerades, and theatrical performances. The hall even held a performance of Japanese aerialists. Since most of his patrons came from across the Comal River, Mr. Weichold had railings installed on the footbridge for their safety. On the evenings of performances, he also stationed two men with lanterns at each end of the bridge to light the way. Weichold fell into financial difficulty and his property was sold on the courthouse steps on June 16, 1874.
The hall sold to the Matzdorf’s and became known as Matzdorf’s Hall. The hall was leased and run by numerous managers throughout its years of operation. In 1877, Matzdorf took over again from Rheinlaender. He made repairs to the building and put in a new dance floor. Rudolf Brandt took over as manager in 1890. He promoted the venue as “Comal Concert Hall.” In 1893, Mrs. Matzdorf became the sole owner. Other managers of the hall were Moritz Schutz, Hermann Klein, and H. Lenzen. Matzdorf Hall continued hosting touring companies, balls, lectures, operas and more.
In February of 1922, the Echo Home Association was organized solely for the purpose of buying and remodeling the Matzdorf’s Hall property. The group had 300 subscribers (paid members). By April, they hired a San Antonio architect to draw up plans and let bids to build a new building. All of the bids were rejected as too expensive. The Association bought materials in May to renovate the building themselves and dedicated the building in July. Renovations included a layer of stucco over the building’s exterior. They marked the building with “1922 Echo Halle” over the South Street entrance. The original windows and doors were left open with ceiling fans overhead. Over time, additions were made to the long side of the building, including a bar and meeting areas, and at some point, indoor bathrooms were added to the rear. There was a large porch constructed on the front, perhaps in the early to mid-40s, with multiple arched openings. Echo Halle had events going all the time, hosting firemen’s benefits, precinct elections, singing festivals, speeches by governors, bridal showers, church programs, graduations, and dances with all sorts of orchestras and bands every weekend. Many a dancer found their life mate on the Echo Halle dance floor.
In 1958, the Echo Halle was sold to the Fraternal Order of Eagles. They removed the words “Echo Halle” from the stucco but left the year 1922. They also added an inverted star/crescent emblem. Eagles Hall was ‘the’ place to have a dance, wedding reception, anniversary celebration, graduation dance. Bands like the Hi-Toppers, Cloverleaf and more filled the air with music. The well-worn dance floor is smooth as glass, due in part, to the trillions of kids who polished it with their knees or stockin’ feet during intermissions. Kids were part of the celebrations… no baby-sitters. Being the child of a Hi-Topper, I learned to dance back-stage. Others remember being put down on a palette under the tables while parents danced the night away. Eagles’ Hall has been painted a few hundred times, and paneling conceals the original windows and doors, but the bones of the structure are the same. 150 years of life and music is ingrained in every beam and every wall that surrounds the dance floor, because it really IS the old Weichold Halle.
2021 is the year that the Eagles sold the hall. Only those who have purchased it know what is to become of this historic structure that is older than Gruene Hall. In New Braunfels, we are surrounded by the historic buildings that define our heritage and city timeline. It ties us to our beginning. We have three Historic Districts established to protect old homes and buildings, including Downtown Historic District, Mill Street Historic District and Sophienburg Hill Historic District. Within these areas, rules are in place so the property owners will maintain the integrity of the original buildings, whether 50 years old or 150 years old. Eagles’ Hall is not in a historic district. New Braunfels Conservation Society has done an amazing job saving and caring for the buildings at their museum, although moving some buildings is not really an option. Eagles’ Hall is historic because of the site, the provenance and the meaning to the community. Would Gruene Hall be as wonderful sitting somewhere else? Only you, citizens of New Braunfels, and our County Historical Commission and City Council can protect the historic buildings of our metropolis. Once gone, these structures cannot be replaced. Help us preserve what makes New Braunfels special, like dance halls that are 150 years old. Older. Than. Gruene. Hall.
Sources: Sophienburg Museum & Archives