Thornton and Roberson: Developing Differently
“Frank Zoeller was drop-dead gorgeous,” recalled 86-year-old Barbara Zoeller about her late husband. “I thought to myself, ‘He’ll never take a second look at me.’”
Frank Zoeller was a senior at Southwest Texas State Teachers College in San Marcos in 1949 when Barbara arrived on campus as a freshman co-ed from Luling. It wasn’t the first time their paths had crossed.
“As a twelve-year-old girl, I remembered hearing about a boy whose father died of a heart attack while passing through our town,” said Barbara. “That boy was Frank Zoeller. My heart went out to him.”
Six years later in a turn of affection, Frank Zoeller’s heart went out to Barbara. The two married in 1954 and remained so until Frank’s death in 2014.
Frank Zoeller was the son of Fred and Atlanta (“Attie”) Zoeller. Fred’s grandfather, architect Phillip Zoeller, arrived in the Texas hill country from Germany in 1846. Phillip Zoeller designed Kendall County’s original courthouse along with its first jail.
After marrying in 1925, Fred and Attie owned a grocery store in Boerne in what is now Bear Moon Bakery. Their son, Frank, delivered groceries for the family business in the early 1940s.
The Fred Zoeller family lived behind their grocery while building a “country home” on the outskirts of Boerne. Today, the Zoeller Haus stands behind Frost Bank at Main Street and Bandera Road.
“Fred and Attie entertained a lot on the property they called Elm Oaks. It stretched all the way to Menger Creek,” their daughter-in-law, Barbara, remembered. “They had big barbecue pits and great big parties with the Freemasons.”
A Story To Tell
“The Zoeller Haus has a story we wanted to tell,” said Boerne-based builder Robert Thornton. “We wanted the structure to remain a useful part of our community.”
Not just anyone could have envisioned the home’s former glory. Raccoons, bees, even a porcupine had taken up residence there. The building had drainage issues. Support beams were rotting out. Transients frequently used it for shelter.
“Frost Bank couldn’t just leave it deteriorating. There were too many risks,” Thornton explained. “But restoring it themselves would have been economically infeasible. And bulldozing it would have gone against their culture. Their billboards say, ‘We’re from here.’ People from here don’t bulldoze here.”
So, Thornton and his partner, Travis Roberson, decided to deepen their due diligence on the Zoeller Haus.
Initial discussions with the City of Boerne about utilities proved challenging, but Roberson kept digging and ultimately found a solution that benefited both Frost Bank and the historic home.
“The bank was still on a force main sewer system,” Roberson discovered. “Once we realized that, the city agreed to install a new sewer tap that could service the Zoeller Haus.”
The revelation opened the door to further conversations with Frost. Thornton and Roberson showed bank executives the Schwarz Homestead they restored across from the Boerne Post Office. The property is now a multi-use commercial development that hints at days gone by.
“Our tenants are getting swept up into the story of the property,” Roberson said. “It helps them brand their businesses. The property not just functional real estate. It’s more meaningful than that.”
Roberson and Thornton are creating a niche with their character-laden developments.
“We target core, infill properties with history that needs to be embellished,” explained Thornton. “The stories of these families need to be told. It makes for a win-win-win for the families, the community and the developer.”
A Collaborative Process
Back at the Zoeller Haus, ten months of renovation transformed the home into modern professional office space. The property is presently available for lease. Thornton and Roberson hope to find tenants they can build a strong relationship with.
“Everything we do is built on long-term relationships. The Zoeller project started with our relationships at Frost Bank and at the City of Boerne,” Thornton noted. “Then, we deployed our team of professionals to make it something very special.”
Thornton and Roberson work closely with interior designer, Melissa Haberstroh, and home designer, Dave Morris. Construction specialists, Erasmo Arreola and Danny Kreifels, guide execution.
“Collaboration thrives on trust,” Roberson stated. “Our team creates in space often with reclaimed materials. We don’t just implement plans drawn by an architect miles away. It’s the difference between a designer drawing on a computer screen and a potter molding at a wheel.”
Mr. Thornton, who has spent nearly three decades in high-end home construction under the trade name GREAT HOMES, sees a difference between traditional development and renewal projects like Schwarz and Zoeller.
“You have to be comfortable with imperfection,” he said. “Our process is organic. If it’s not, things get sterile. We don’t tear everything out of the wall because there’s a story there. Life happened there. Life isn’t perfect. Why would I expect a building to be? The scars tell a story.”
For example, to save the patina on the Zoeller Haus’ metal roof, Roberson sourced a pricey product used to preserve lighthouses on the East Coast.
“Some builders would have ripped off the roof and started over,” he said.
For as much as Roberson and Thornton look back at the history of their projects, they’re also looking forward.
“A shell office building developer may get a better financial return, but it is not always an attractive product,” Thornton commented. “It can be void of character, and it won’t age as well. We want our grandkids to say, ‘Sweet! Grandpa built that.’ They wouldn’t say that about all types of development.”
With two projects under their belts, Thornton and Roberson have their sights on more. Two years ago, they acquired vacant land next to the Old No. 9 hike and bike trail in the center of Boerne. The original Boerne train depot once occupied the site.
The partners plan to leverage the train station theme to create a depot structure and related outbuildings. Improvements may include both light commercial and residential uses.
“With our projects, we try to re-create both what was there and what could have been there,” Thornton remarked.
Thornton and Roberson are also considering plans to restore an iconic shuttered gas station on Oak Park Drive, a structure that has inspired the dreams of passersby for more than fifty years.
In addition, the construction duo envisions a mixed use structure along Cibolo Creek adjacent to Main Plaza on Yoalana Street. The property will likely include residential and commercial uses.
More Than Work
“This doesn’t feel like work,” Roberson summarized. “We’re having so much fun. When you take historic restoration, community development, business acumen and collaborative friendships and throw it all into the fastest growing county in Texas, that’s a good recipe.”
Thornton agreed, “If we can be creative, have fun, earn a decent living and please the community...If we get an attaboy from a little old lady, holy smokes! What more could you ask for? That’s an intangible you can’t put a dollar amount on.”
The attaboys are certainly streaming in.
Thornton continued, “When you have long-time residents like Shannon and Christina Bergmann, Ray Schwarz and former Kendall County Judge John Eddie Vogt thanking you for a job well done, well, it makes for a mighty good feeling at the end of the day.”