Heritage, Volume 6, Number 2, Summer 1988 Page: 14
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Christmas lights spiral around the Zilker Park Moonlight Tower.
In the early 1970s, 15 of 21 remaining towers received
recognition from the Historic Landmark Commission and
they became official state landmarks. At the time, it was felt
that the other six were in such an advanced state of deterioration
that they would have to be dismantled. In 1975, 20 of
the original 31 still stood and a report of their condition listed
two towers as condemned, recommended three more for
removal, and described all of the towers as in need of repair.
One had sections removed from its framework leaving its
height at about 140 feet. Another was described as badly bent
without possibility of straightening. Clearly with about a
third of the towers gone and the rest in need of attention the
future of these landmarks was in doubt.
Efforts to maintain the system have included regular
repainting and bracing of the base sections and replacement
of parts rendered unrepairable by using sections from towers
already dismantled. No new wrought or cast iron parts are
currently available. The system has been placed on the
National Register of Historic Places and grant monies sought
by the city for its maintenance. The effectiveness of the
maintenance effort is hard to measure since only the visible
sections of joints can be inspected.
Attrition from mishaps continues. Three more towers
have come down since 1975. The last tower in the university
area was knocked down by construction equipment in 1980.
The incident was viewed by some as one involving unusual
carelessness. This same tower had been moved 43 feet from its
original position in 1948 by inching it along greased steel
tracks laid for the purpose. A number of others are known to
have been moved from their original locations.
The most well known of the current towers is the one in
Zilker Park. Most Austinites know it as the support base for
the annual Christmas tree of lights display. Ironically it is
neither in an original location nor is it one of the original
towers. One of the original towers was moved to the park after
the area, formerly part of the clay deposit land owned by
Zilker, was donated to the city. Subsequently the original
tower was condemned and dismantled and was replaced by a
new one. The new one is made of galvanized steel. This
replacement was accomplished at a cost of $10,000. The
original towers' cost has been computed at $1,500 each.
At the time it was built, Austin's "Crown of Lights" was a
system of a type found in only one other city, Detroit. Detroit
removed its system more than 50 years ago leaving Austin's as
the only surviving example. The crown has lost 14 of its
original 31 jewels while adding one replacement.
The system is both fragile and vulnerable but public
sentiment is on its side. The city has commissioned a study to
ascertain the scope and cost of maintaining and restoring the
survivors. The multi-disciplinary study involves metallurgical
analysis, stress testing, architectural studies, and historical
preservation techniques in a comprehensive restoration/preservation
plan. An annual aspect of this preservation effort is
that some of the towers must be moved out of harm's way or
barrier curbs must be erected to protect them from vehicular
traffic. Dismantling the towers, restoring their component
parts, and then reassembling them appears to be the most
desirable course of action and the only current option that
will insure they are capable of continued survival.
The restoration of the towers faces the familiar problem of
how to obtain funds to accomplish the necessary tasks. It has
been estimated that restoring a single tower could cost as
much as $140,000 and that the price for the entire project
might exceed two million dollars. What a difference a century
makes! It's a shame the current city officials can't come up
with another obsolete rail line trade.
These then are Austin's other towers: the Buford, an
example of private sector preservation at its best; the clay
carrier cable and bucket system remnant, the recipient of no
preservation effort; and the Moonlight Towers, an unprecedented
public preservation project striving to maintain a
unique asset beset with unusual problems.
Hank Moncure is a contract archeologist specializing in historical
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Texas Historical Foundation. Heritage, Volume 6, Number 2, Summer 1988, periodical, Summer 1988; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth45434/m1/14/: accessed June 28, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas Historical Foundation.