By Keva Hoffmann Boardman —
I have heard some murmurings in town lately about a place called The House that Jack Built. As often happens at the Sophienburg, I had already done some research into this business. Let me share some facts and a couple stories that I discovered along the journey.
In February of 1927, Albert Nowotny began working on improving his cold drink/confectioners stand located at 1413 West San Antonio Street. Over the next couple of years, he enlarged the nice wood-framed confectionary to accommodate his collection of Native American artifacts as a little museum. Behind that, he constructed a tourist camp which included little cottages facing a central court and a modern bath house and restroom for tourists to use. A tourist court was a fairly new idea that came with the proliferation of automobiles and building of the highway system.
Nowotny’s business was good and in 1930, the little attractive wood-framed confectionary gave way to a new “fireproof” structure. The carpenter on the job was Jack Gill, so the name of the business became The House that Jack Built. The House that Jack Built was designed to mimic the Pueblo-style architecture found in New Mexico and Arizona which better suited Nowotny’s burgeoning Native American collections. The new multi-level building featured a stucco exterior with exposed, extended roof beams and natural pole ladders between the levels for authentic detailing.
The interior had a unique, multi-colored broken tile-and-concrete patterned floor. Cases lining the walls were filled with Native American artifacts collected by Nowotny in the New Braunfels area as well as other examples from the American Southwest, Mexico and even head-hunter axes from the Philippines. Displayed were large quantities of painted pottery, stone tools and points, and shell and bone jewelry.
The “free” museum also contained “a part of Chief Geronimo’s poisoned arrows and water jug.” Amongst the many antique pistols, guns, swords and daggers from the Texas-Mexican War, the Spanish-American War and the Civil War, were “Jesse James’ pistols, a dueling sword lost in 1541 belonging to Coronado and bullets fired by Zachary Taylor into the walls of Mission Obispado at Monterrey on his way to Mexico City.”
Stuffed animals peered from the corners and case tops. Trophy heads and horns hung above on the walls vying for attention amongst beautifully-colored, hand-woven Indian blankets. Nowotny also sold Native American and Mexican artifacts, jewelry and blankets as well as tourist trinkets made in Japan. At one point in time, according to Ogden Coleman, there was even a live bear on a chain!
The confectionary/café featured Mexican food, fried chicken dinners, hamburgers and sandwiches which were served at tables scattered in the center of the large room amidst the historic collections.
Albert Nowotny’s sons helped to run The House that Jack Built. Jerome described an interesting prohibition-era story in his oral history recording at the Sophienburg.
Local newspaperman, Fred Oheim once said, “… that the making of beer at home was legal. You could make up to 200 gallons of wine per family and a certain amount of beer per year, but, it required a federal license. Selling beer, wine, etc. to other folks was illegal … the Revenuers would come and put you in jail for selling not producing it.”
Businesses, also, could not sell alcoholic beverages, but during Prohibition, tourists would stop at The House that Jack Built for a hamburger and ask where they could get real beer. According to Jerome Nowotny, there were “many, many, many men” in New Braunfels that made and sold beer. The stills were usually hidden by hedges of Ligustrum which were commonly used around town in place of wood fences.
Albert would tell son Jerome, “Gehen mit die Leute, nicht der Herr.” (Go with the people, not with God.) He then gave Jerome an address for a local “small businessman”. Jerome would escort the tourists to that location where they would buy beer and then usually tip him $5 — very good money in those days. Albert never sent him to the same place twice in a row in order to make sure all “small businessmen” got a fair chance for a sale and to protect them by “spreading the risk, so-to-speak, of the illegal operators.”
In the 1940s, Percy and Norma Rose Richter rented and operated The House that Jack Built. My dad, Carroll Hoffmann, worked there as a busboy. It was no longer a museum but a very popular café and bar. It did, however, have a totem pole out in front of the building. Open 11 am to 11 pm, the café often ran out of food on Saturdays. My dad would ride his bike to work from Academy Street in the morning and Mr. Richter would put his bike in the back of the truck and take him home at night. Dad had to be there early to mop the colorful floor. He would always check for change beneath the tables and in the coin return slots of the little jukebox selection boxes on the tables. Does every little boy do this?
The building was altered again before my Dad’s time. The second-floor rooms had been enlarged into a banquet hall and the front half fenced in to create an outdoor terrace. Newspaper advertisements announce dance bands and society articles record parties that took place at The House that Jack Built. My dad said it was tricky for the waitresses to get food and drink up the stairs. He remembers that NB Highschool Head Coach Weldon Bynum took the ’48-’49 football team up there to eat steaks one night. Apparently even back then, football players were BMOC.
After the Richters, the café was run briefly as the Langston Café. In 1953, Felix and Harry Zoeller purchased the building and it became Zoeller Funeral Home until 1978. Harry Zoeller said that the unique tile floor was one of Nowotny’s selling points for the building. The Comal County Juvenile Residential Supervision and Treatment Center (Teen Connection) bought the building in 1981. The House that Jack Built/Zoeller Funeral Home presently houses Connections.
Sources: Sophienburg Museum & Archives; “Reflections” oral History program #21; NB Herald archive; Heritage Exhibit notes; personal interviews.