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Plaza-Palooza: The history behind the roundabout

By Tara V. Kohlenberg —

Main Plaza. We drive around it every day. It captures the imagination and baffles the tourists (and sometimes the new locals). It’s a magical place in the heart of our community that dons “new clothes” for each occasion, no matter the season, drawing us into the scene. Ever wonder how that came to be? It was created that way by our ancestors.

When the first German immigrants came to New Braunfels in 1845, surveyor Nicholas Zink laid out the town in the European tradition, with a large open public space in the center, used for meetings and celebrations. In German, the space is known as a Platz. In Italian, Piazza. In American, Plaza. You might think, well, that’s the same thing as a town square. Except, that it is different. If you look at most of the town squares across Texas, like in Seguin or San Marcos, you will find the courthouse quite literally sitting smack in the middle of the square. Our courthouse was purposely built on the edge of the Plaza, to maintain the feel of their German homeland, with the people’s space in the middle. In New Braunfels, it is Main Plaza.

For the first, say fifty years, the plaza was a completely open space, where horses and wagons could travel in whatever direction they desired. More recently, I hear people call Main Plaza a “roundabout” or “traffic circle,” as if it is merely a function of traffic patterns. But it is not. In fact, the first to occupy the big open space was the fountain. The Plaza Fountain was added in 1895 with money left over from the 50th Anniversary Celebration of New Braunfels. Protective curbing came later to keep the horses from drinking out of the fountain.

The Bandstand (it is not now, nor has it ever been a gazebo) was built in 1905 to stage musical and singing programs. It used to have public restrooms and storage space underneath for chairs. The monuments of Civil War & World War I Soldiers were dedicated to honor the fallen sons of New Braunfels. The landscaping, sidewalks and trees have changed over the years, as has the location of the monuments, but the sentiment of community pride tied to Main Plaza has always been the same. At one time, the Schmitz Hotel changed hands. The new owner remodeled and changed the name to The Plaza Hotel. The hotel has since been restored to its original name and façade. New Braunfels Coffee shop was once Plaza Drugstore.

That is the story of Main Plaza, but that is not the end. “Main” in front of something indicates that there must be more. More plazas? Yep! There were more! This generation does not have the lock on green space. Two plazas that still exist were born out of function. Butchers took animals from hoof to table, and it could be a messy, smelly business. They were relegated to the outer edges of town to keep the flies away. Market Square, off Comal Avenue and bordered by Tolle on both sides, was for the butchers. The tannery was just beyond that toward the Comal River, well, because those businesses just go together. Market Square has recently undergone a wonderful makeover. Keep your eyes open for upcoming summer music events there.

Another plaza near downtown, is Haymarket Plaza (now Park). The name is fairly straight-forward. It was the site of the hay market. It is located on Comal Avenue, also bordered by Hampe and Simon (pronounced See-mon) Street. The area was once part of Lindheimer’s farm. It also was the site of an African-American school. In 1964, the Naval Reserve built a radio training center on a small corner of the property.

The last two plazas are not quite as easy to see anymore. They also require a little more backstory. After Prince Carl laid out New Braunfels on the west bank of the Comal, the Veramendi Garza family laid out their property on the east bank. They named the city Comaltown. Immigrants arriving in 1848 bought property in Comaltown. Twenty-two years later, the remainder of the Veramendi properties were divided and sold as Braunfels. Braunfels was bounded on the north by North Street and to the south by South Street and the east by East Street. So simple. Both had centrally located public spaces called plazas on the earliest maps. Comaltown was bordered by Garza Street and the river. The Comaltown plaza was bordered by Austin, Guadalupe (now Houston), Union and Garza. In 1850, M.A. Dooley gave Lot 4 on the corner of Austin and Guadalupe for the building of a school. The German American Union School was chartered in 1852. It became known as Comal Union School. It was later used as an African American school until about 1935. The property across the street from the school later became known as Union Plaza. The NBISD donated Union Plaza in 1954 to build the New Braunfels Hospital, now Christus New Braunfels.

The other plaza in Braunfels was called East Braunfels Plaza. It was bordered by Veramendi, Commerce, Main, and Houston. At one time, Fire hose cart Company No. 4 and fire warning bell was located in the middle of the that plaza. In 1924, there was great discussion and an election to decide where to build the new Ward School of NBISD. The board leaned strongly toward Union Plaza, but the citizens wanted East Braunfels Plaza to be the site of the new school named for the second president of the Republic of Texas, Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar. It is still there.

Our Main Plaza has been the site of public meetings, grand Anniversary events, 4th of July celebrations and parades, Diez y Seis parades, anti-Prohibition events, cotton markets, Cinco de Mayo and Wurstfest celebrations. Some plazas now have hospitals and schools, but our ancestors purposely planned the plazas as spaces for public use. Thank them for their forward thinking and relish the spaces in our downtown.

Preparing for the antiprohibition meeting, New Braunfels, Texas, July 15, 1908, Nobody drunk, nobody in jail!

Preparing for the antiprohibition meeting, New Braunfels, Texas, July 15, 1908, Nobody drunk, nobody in jail!

Sources: Sophienburg Museum & Archives; Herald-Zeitung archives.