An illustration of a goat standing in a hallway with a rich red rug and portrait on the wall and ornate light fixture
Illustration by Ivan Canu

Devil’s Advocate

The Faust Hotel in New Braunfels conjures thoughts of Goethe’s Faust

by Fernando A. Flores

In the Spanish-tiled lobby of the Faust Hotel, a large portrait of a bearded man with a pronounced mustache, wearing 19th century military armor, hangs on the western wall. He’s holding a helmet in his right hand. Aside from the baby grand piano against the eastern wall, with a tiny sign warning that unless you’re Mozart, please refrain from playing, this is the most noticeable decoration greeting hotel visitors. No plaque indicates who this mustached man might be, though it’s admittedly unusual to see a European military man given prominence in a Central Texas spot rather than, say, a Texan.

I was first introduced to the Faust Hotel during the spring of 2019, before my debut novel, Tears of the Trufflepig, was released. One of the events on a little pre-publication tour was at a bookseller conference in a hotel I’d never heard of located in New Braunfels. When I learned of the ominously named Faust Hotel, I was immediately intrigued. Like other voracious readers, I have a running list of classic literary works I’ve always wanted to consume but haven’t found the time for. The tragic play in two parts commonly known in the Anglophone world as Faust, by the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is one of them.

Faust. Every time I hear that name, which isn’t common where I live, in Austin, I think of what anybody else who hasn’t read his masterpiece but is familiar with the themes therein probably thinks of: the devil. Muscular red guy with a pointy tail and horns who tries to trick you for your eternal soul. Mephistopheles, in Goethe’s work. (If you are into avant-garde music, you might also think of the 1970s krautrock band from West Germany.) Sometimes I fear I read into real life too much. Like working on a novel in progress, I constantly try to understand the past in relation to the present to make sense of what the future may bring. This is how the local, unwritten history and lore of a particular time and place come frequently to haunt me as a writer.

Faust, Part One was published in 1808 and begins with the Lord and Mephistopheles making a classic bet, that the Lord’s favorite erudite scholar, Dr. Faust, will not deviate from the golden path in his search for ultimate knowledge. In Dr. Faust’s first scene, we find he is disappointed with his worldly pursuits and contemplates suicide. Mephistopheles then appears, offering Dr. Faust a deal to be signed in blood to help Dr. Faust in his earthly endeavors, and in return Dr. Faust will do the same for Mephistopheles in hell. What follows is a series of tragic encounters involving a dead baby, a dungeon, seduction, transmutations, and accidental deaths, all of which follow Dr. Faust to the second installment of Faust, published 24 years later.

The conference at the Faust Hotel was to be the launch of my book promotion, in this little old town founded by German immigrants. It was a cool, spring evening in New Braunfels, and I remember feeling this location appropriate, even giving me a boost of confidence that I’d be reading an excerpt of my novel to booksellers at this historic hotel with literary associations in its name. I don’t necessarily approach the devil in the Catholic sense, so I didn’t feel the hotel’s name meant my fate as a writer was doomed.

The four-story building stands out with its Spanish Colonial Revival design and air-conditioning units protruding from most windows. Its terra cotta work has sustained the weathering of time. Right by the entrance, there is a welcoming terrace with tables and umbrellas set up for people to enjoy food and beverages from the Faust Pub.

Prior to my reading, I walked across Seguin Avenue to Naegelin’s Bakery, which claims to be “The Oldest Bakery in Texas,” opened in 1868. I made it right before closing time and had a delicious pastry while admiring New Braunfels’ downtown architecture. There’s an original settlers’ home turned German restaurant directly across from the hotel and about a hundred yards to the west, a little bistro that feels as if it was plucked out of a big city’s French Quarter. These charming 20th-century buildings were the type constantly getting razed in big cities, but luckily stayed still in the slower pace of smaller towns. Other downtown highlights: a French antique shop, a quaint, lively bowling alley, and open and available public restrooms, something bigger cities really need more of.

Everything goes by so fast during a book tour that you hardly have time to take in the local history of the places you visit, unless you actively make time for it in your stacked schedule. The tour happened, Tears of the Trufflepig was released to reviews I was happy with, and eight months later the pandemic struck, bringing with it imagery of past plagues, medieval times, and artistic works that had addressed previous pandemics. After a few years simmering with the discovery of the Faust Hotel, I was convinced there was some deep meaning buried in New Braunfels waiting for me to uncover. Why does this little hotel with the same name of arguably the most famous work of German literature exist in this little town between San Antonio and Austin?

During those pre-vax quarantine days, the Faust Hotel also conjured memories of stories about the devil—most notably a famous one from my upbringing in South Texas. I have since gone on to hear similar variations of the incident attached to other Texas cities: the night the devil manifested at some seedy nightclub. It must have been around 2000 when I first heard it. Local McAllen lore had it that one night, at a club on North 10th, or maybe off Jackson, past midnight and near closing time, smoke appeared suddenly on the dance floor. A group of people screamed, scattered, and a woman fell dead, while her dancing partner grew goat hooves and in a rush clopped toward the exit into the Rio Grande Valley night. Over the years, I’ve heard versions of this story from three different people who didn’t know each other. One even claimed to have been present at that bar and swore to not touch a drop of liquor since. “Seeing the devil would do that to you,” I recall him saying.

The legend of Faust, of a learned man who makes a deal with the devil to attain endless pleasure and knowledge, existed for almost three centuries before Goethe started writing Faust in his late 50s. It’s commonly known by scholars today that this myth originated with the real-life “doctor” Johann Georg Faust. A contemporary of the theologian Martin Luther, Faust was a fierce independent thinker who swam against the currents of the time regarding matters of spiritual salvation. He dedicated his life to what was then known as “alchemistic learning,” and his bombastic temperament made him a much talked about figure, steering the collective imagination toward fantastic realms that included how he’d made a sinister pact to achieve his notoriety.

After his death in 1540, when the Catholic sentiments of the cultural climate took over, Faust achieved what few do and became immortal through storytelling and art. Puppet shows relating the story of this warlock who made a deal with the devil became popular to the point of farce. How threatening can this Mephistopheles be when he’s a stuffed cloth with stubby limbs and fake eyes? Faust’s tragic story of his bargain with the devil, however, proved powerful enough to transcend the shortcomings of any theatrical production. So powerful, the story traveled beyond European borders, and in the 1590s Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus was first performed in England by the troupe known as The Admiral’s Men.

Over time, the real Faust became one of those figures like John Hardy or Johnny Appleseed—legends that originated with real people who go on to be written or sang about in scores of ways that rapidly blur the line between fantasy and reality. Questions of Faust’s birthplace have been a matter of speculation and much debate, but in Knittlingen, Germany, there’s a museum dedicated to this historical person’s life, and how his death came to inspire lasting folklore all over the world.

New Braunfels was founded in 1845, about 13 years after Goethe’s death and the posthumous publication of the second part of Faust. It’s not hard to consider the cultural impact this distinguished German writer must have had on the city’s founder. Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels was the commissioner general of Adelsverein, the mid-19th century German plot to turn Texas into a new German state. Even if he had never written the second part of Faust in his old age, Goethe’s legacy as a man of letters was already sealed through his published works extending from scientific to autobiographical to dramatic texts. And that’s not even mentioning the book that made him a sensation in his mid-20s, The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Prince Carl was months away from turning 20 when Goethe died in March of 1832. Young Werther by then was undoubtedly a classic, synonymous with The Catcher in the Rye or The Bell Jar in our time. Goethe’s death would have been the equivalent of the recent deaths of pop culture legends like Little Richard, Joan Didion, and John Prine, who influenced the 20th century.

I found New Braunfels, rich with historical markers, to be a delight for people like myself who are curious about small pockets of history. On a placard by the Phoenix Saloon, one learns of the drinking establishment’s long, chaotic history, which includes a pool of live alligators held by the proprietor more than 100 years ago. Facing the drive-thru of Naegelin’s Bakery is a mural painted on the side of a building dedicated to Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer, known as “The Father of Texas Botany.” An intellectual who fled Germany to escape political oppression, Lindheimer lived in New Braunfels from 1844 to his death. He was the kind of erudite man the character Faust seemed to be—or even like Goethe himself, who was interested in botany and wrote a book regularly translated as The Metamorphosis of Plants.

A Confederate monument near a gazebo at New Braunfels’ center depicts a young, surely blond, blue-eyed soldier alongside a plaque erected in 1964 reminding us of the goal to “make the Confederacy an ocean-to-ocean nation.” Over 300 Confederate soldiers were enlisted at the site of this marker.

In my research, I learned that between the time of the Texas Revolution in the mid-1830s and the Mexican American War in the late 1840s, Germany was undergoing a transformation that would lead to its March Revolution of 1848. Many German intellectuals and free thinkers, not unlike Lindheimer, sought to escape. The artistic communities they created in rural Texas, outside of New Braunfels, were known as Latin Settlements. These immigrants were musically inclined, said to have suitcases filled with books, and usually moved on to bigger cities like Houston or San Antonio, leaving no trace of these settlements behind. For people who find comfort in books like I do, moving away from home with only half a trunk full is a sacrifice. You take only what you absolutely can’t do without, what defines you, your values, and possibly your culture.

According to the Faust Hotel, the Traveler’s Hotel was built in 1929 at the same address, 240 S. Seguin Ave., over land that was once the site of the family home of Joseph Faust—a prominent banker and mayor of New Braunfels. Walter Faust, Joseph’s son, secured the property for a future hotel after Joseph’s death in 1924. Using rollers, it took over a week to move their original three-story family home down the street after its sale, where it currently stands, allowing for the hotel to be built. In 1936, after the death of Walter, the 63-room hotel was renamed the Faust Hotel, to honor the family. It has since withstood many renovations, hardships, and owners, while still maintaining its original charm.

If ghosts haunt the Faust Hotel, like local legends and newspaper clippings framed on the vestibule walls proclaim, I never saw an elegantly dressed specter through my peripheral vision while turning a corner. Not once did an inanimate object in front of me move without prompt, nor did any fogged mirror try relaying a message after a shower. But surely one doesn’t need to see a ghost to feel a haunting. I think of the ghosts supposedly walking around The Driskill, a venerable hotel in my hometown. I think of the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson, who is famously rumored to have made a Faustian bargain himself and recorded the bulk of his material at the Sheraton Gunter Hotel in downtown San Antonio. Though he didn’t die there, one can still feel his haunting presence around Room 414.

I’m sitting in the vestibule of the Faust Hotel on the morning of my departure last September, staring at the large, framed, replica painting of the bearded man with a pronounced mustache. The self-serve coffee station is set up in front of him at this early hour. This was my first visit since the book event in 2019, and I purposely waited until my final day to discover who he is. When I ask the concierge behind the original 1929 cash register, I learn it’s a portrait of the man who started it all: Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels himself, who never returned to New Braunfels after his marriage in Germany, the same year he established the city.

I think about Goethe and Faust: an artist and his creation. I think about the devil, Mephistopheles, and the German immigrants who moved here, carrying Goethe’s books in German to bring something of the homeland that no longer welcomed them to the frontier known as Tejas. Eyeing Prince Carl up and down, I ask him what kind of big plans he had out here. Why start a new German state way out this way? Art and literature move us in unexpected ways, sometimes inspiring us to do things we could never have imagined on our own. It’d brought me to New Braunfels, chasing little missed connections with Goethe’s Faust. Something similar must have happened to Prince Carl when he was in the cavalry and first read about Texas, then decided it was the place he and his fellow Germans needed to be.

I came out here to find something about the devil but end up thinking of the character Dr. Faust, who has something of Goethe, of Prince Carl, of Lindheimer. It is owing perhaps to the power of art that I can see the tragedies and forbidden pursuits of these German men in a fictional character. Faust, through his restlessness, created this situation himself by agreeing to the bargain. It’s that little devil inside all of us that is never fulfilled and always wants more.

From the February 2023 issue

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