Storied Boerne property secrets reveal much about its era

The Kronkosky family property in Boerne holds many historical secrets and architectural beauties.

By Jack Morgan, Texas Public RadioJanuary 3, 2024 9:58 am, , ,

From Texas Public Radio:

Each Texas town and city has stories to be told about its history, its architecture and its culture. San Antonio’s nearest Hill Country neighbor is Boerne, whose storied history is still quite alive, thanks in part to an eminent family.

If you’ve been there, it’s almost hard not to notice one building that looms over the Hill Country town — a distinctive 4-story tower on Boerne’s highest hill. Paul Barwick has spent the last 30 years working for the city.

“A beautiful piece of property that has a valley, a couple of hills on either side, has a fantastic view of downtown Boerne,” he said.

Jack Morgan / Texas Public Radio

One of two original houses. In the foreground is a graveyard for nuns and the support structure for the walking path.

Barwick is now Boerne’s special projects director. He explained that the property’s recent history begins with a family named Kronkosky.

“The Kronkosky family purchased it in the late 1800s,” he said.

When the Kronkosky family bought the property, Albert Sr. was the patriarch.

“Most people think the Kronkosky family, they made all their money with the San Antonio Drug Company. They did,” he said. “But what had happened was Albert Senior knew George Merck, and he was traveling in San Antonio, and he visited with Albert at his office, and he became ill while he was here.”

Jack Morgan / Texas Public Radio

One of the two original houses built by the Kronkoskys.

Albert helped nurse Merck back to health, and as a thanks, Merck gave Kronkosky stock in Merck Pharmaceutical, stock Albert kept buying after the gift.

“And at one point he was the largest individual shareholder for Merck Pharmaceutical,” Barwick said.

Between San Antonio Drug Company and the Merck Investments, the Kronkoskys began building on the acreage, constructing two large stone homes. Sister Bernadine Reyes is a Benedictine Nun whose order bought the property back in 1962.

“We’re Benedictine sisters, but the name comes from the fact that St. Benedict, who lived in the sixth century, wrote a rule, a way of life, and that rule has been pertinent to people’s lives through all these centuries,” Reyes said.

The sisters occupy several of the buildings the Kronkoskys had built for family.

Jack Morgan / Texas Public Radio

Maximo Cortes' bench overlooking Boerne.

“The main house was their home — a two story building — and there was another house built just across from that building, which was for Albert Junior,” she said.

Two 2-story stone homes adorn one hill. There are two hills, and both contain homes.

“There is another residential house on the property. It was not their main house, but it’s a full house, with a full kitchen,” she said.

Barwick noted that just as necessity is the mother of invention, that ravine between the two hills birthed one of the property’s oddest attributes.

“If you wanted to be able to walk from structure to structure, you’re having to go downhill, up some caliche roads and work your way back up the hills,” he said. “So they came up with this idea of putting an elevated walking bridge. Pretty spectacular layout,” he said.

The approximately 100-yard bridge was about six feet wide, and at parts were about 60 feet above the ravine. While the bridge made a strenuous trek easy, it wasn’t built to last, and hasn’t. But the concrete piers at bottom are still there, a bit like a Stonehenge in miniature, from one hillside across the ravine, then up.

Unlike some of the wealthy, Barwick said the Kronkosky family didn’t wall out rest of the world.

Courtesy Photo

A hand-tinted Boerne postcard shows the walk bridge between homes.

“Albert Kronkosky would make that place available for GIs during World War II. It would be open for dances and all kinds of activities,” he said. “And of course, he had a San Antonio drug company, and he would bring his employees out to Boerne, so they’d hop on the San Antonio/Aransas Pass train.”

That train no longer exists, but the Old #9 rails-to-trails walk path is now in the tracks’ place. Another Kronkosky architectural attribute towers above Boerne from its highest point: a 4-story Japanese style building with a pagoda roofline.

“Mr. Kronkosky was very much into the Asian culture and loved the style of architecture,” said Brian Cartwright, a former publisher of the Boerne Star newspaper.

“It just really has a very unique character about it. When he was operating the San Antonio drug company, he would often travel throughout [Asia] to look for different medicines and different herbs and whatnot that he could use here in the United States to form into medicines,” Cartwright said. “And so … he kind of got accustomed to that type of architecture.”

The narrow limestone structure once held a large water tank, but now is filled with four stories of stairs. On a clear day the view from the top is more than 20 miles.

“There’s doors that open up, and there’s places you can stand outside and look over and you can literally look right down on the City of Boerne below you,” he said.

In a property with many historic and unusual features, it’s perhaps a small one that’s most unusual: a 7-step elevated bench perched on a hillside overlooking downtown. Your eye tells you it’s made of wood logs, but in fact, artist Carlos Cortes says it’s all concrete and rebar.

Jack Morgan / Texas Public Radio

Kronkosky tower at sunset.

“Reinforced concrete. Sculpting. Imitating wood, stone,” he said.

Nearly 100 years ago, Carlos Cortes’ father Maximo created this piece on site.

“Maximo was my dad, and he learned the work from my great uncle, Dionicio Rodriguez,” Cortes said.

Maximo wasn’t a self-involved artist with an entourage of fans. He was highly skilled working man in an unusual craft called faux bois — fake wood — which kept him in work even during the Great Depression.

“I don’t think they were considered artists, and I don’t even know if they used the term ‘artisan,’ ” Cortes said.

While faux bois work was highly specialized, those writing their paychecks tended to think of them less of artists and more of skilled laborers. Carlos reflected on when he and his dad went to check out the bench.

Bill Ward and Paul Barwick planting Bigtooth Maples on the Old #9 trail. Jack Morgan / Texas Public Radio

“My dad passed away in 1997. I think that we went this would have been maybe in the 1980s,” he said.

They spent some time sitting on the bench, reminiscing. Back in the day Maximo was given something by the Kronkoskys that he kept with him forever.

“He had a letter that was a letter of recommendation from the Kronkosky family,” Cortes said. “I recall that the letter was dated around 1927. So it would have been some time around that time that he had done the work.”

Etched into concrete on the second-from-bottom stair of the bench notes that it’s the work of “M. Cortes, 3203 Salinas St.” and gives a phone number. Carlos says this was one of several faux bois pieces on the property back in the Kronkosky era.

Eventually the property was sold to the Benedictine sisters, who have no plans of moving.

Sister Bernadine Reyes says that after that sale the Kronkosky family didn’t just disappear from their lives.

“They sold us a property, but they kept a relationship with the sisters,” Reyes said. “Some of the sisters used to play dominoes with them periodically, and I remember them coming Christmas Eve. And they wanted to come in and have hamburgers grilled. They were certainly very wealthy, but very simple.”

Courtesy of Carlos Cortes

Carlos with son Adan and father Maximo Cortes.

Albert’s wife Bessie would put her husband to work after dinner.

“Bessie would often say to Albert, ‘you go wash the dishes. We’re going to start the game,’ ” she said.

With all who have come to and subsequently gone from Boerne’s Kronkosky estate, it’s perhaps the people and their heartwarming stories that have kept it fascinating and relevant.

Disclosure: The Kronkosky Foundation is a grant supporter of TPR.

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