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

Austin American-Statesman - - BUSINESS - By Barry Har­rell

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.”

Larry Kolvo­ord pho­tos

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.

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