At Mueller, defunct control tower heading toward retro restoration
Project to return ’60s-era structure to original look is under way – much to neighbors’ delight
The former Mueller air traffic control tower, a longtime city symbol and one of the last pieces still standing from Austin’s former airport, is in the process of being restored to its former glory.
A project to restore the tower’s exterior to its original design was started in late June, said Dee Desjardin, vice president of marketing and communication for the Mueller development.
The development is a 711-acre mixed-use community on the site of the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport.
The restoration project for the nine-story tower will remove a modern glass exterior — “a second skin,” Desjardin said — that was put on the tower years after its debut and restore the alternating light blue and dark blue por-
celain panels that gave the tower its distinctive look. There will also be some clear glass panels mixed throughout, to match the tower’s original design.
The Mueller development plan has long called for the tower to be preserved, thanks to the efforts of Austin residents who thought it should be saved, Desjardin said.
The tower was among just three structures — along with a 1940s-era wooden hangar and the private terminal that was converted into the Mueller Central visitors center and office building — left standing when the old airport was demolished after its closure in 1999.
The tower, which is still owned by the City of Austin, “will always be an icon for the community and, I do think, for Austin as a whole,” Desjardin said. “It was a part of the skyline for so many years. I think people appreciate the historic value that it has as a reminder of its era and of what the site used to be.”
The restoration project, which is expected to take about three months, is being done by Zapalac/Reed Construction Co. of Austin, and the project will be paid for initially by Catellus Development Group, master developer of Mueller.
Catellus will be reimbursed through the tax increment financing agreement between the City of Austin and the Mueller development, Desjardin said. She declined to disclose the project’s cost, citing Catellus policy.
Plans to restore the tower’s interior are on hold, Desjardin said, until a key question is answered: What will the tower’s future use be?
Townhomes have gone up just across a street from the tower, and plans call for more mixeduse development nearby, but the tower’s role hasn’t been decided.
“That will be determined in the future,” Desjardin said. “The way that is ultimately developed could incorporate the tower in a number of ways.
“It may be an iconic structure in a park or an open space, or it might actually get incorporated into the development in that area. It could be that it becomes a part of a building in the way that it was a part of the terminal.”
Desjardin said Mueller community residents “really love the idea that (the restoration project) has started now, and that that area is going to be back to its original condition, because for many people, it’s a familiar sight.”
Mueller resident Brenda Thompson said she can see the tower from the window of her townhome and said that was a factor in her decision to buy where she did.
“I loved that about this place when I bought it,” she said. “I’m actually kind of obsessed with (the tower). I take pictures of it in all different formats; it’s the screen saver on my iPad. I love the tower; it’s retro.”
Thompson said she is eagerly following the tower’s restoration. “It’s fun to see it, day by day, turning to its former glory,” she said. “I definitely see it as an icon.”
The reinforced concrete tower was built in 1961, at a cost of $1.4 million. It was designed by the Austin architectural firm Fehr and Granger and debuted with much fanfare: Then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson spoke at the May 1961 dedication ceremony.
The tower’s flared-at-the-top design — a glass-enclosed control room with a roof deck tops off the tower — won a national award from Progressive Architecture magazine.
Desjardin said she can still remember flying into Austin as a child, landing at the old Mueller airport and admiring the control tower.
“Austin was not as developed then, so … it made an even more dramatic statement. We’re really excited to be able to have it restored to the visual that people would have seen flying in in the 1960s.”
Built in 1961, the reinforced concrete tower for air traffic controllers at the former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport already is revealing its original blue porcelain exterior to the new community.
Plans to restore the interior are on hold while a new role for the tower is decided, but once clear glass panels are installed to match the original design, the tower’s distinctive look will re-emerge.