Wednesday, April 8, 2015


Moontower in Zilker Park
Strange to say, I never noticed Austin’s moontowers during my two years in grad school at UT. Being a great fan of Dazed and Confused, I knew exactly what they were, and even that the movie’s director, Richard Linklater, used Austin as the setting for his film. I guess I never thought to look up very much while I was there.

Before flying down for spring break last month, however, I mentioned the visit to a friend of mine, who began talking a blue streak about the spindly metallic structures. Between his enthusiastic explanation of their technology and a thorough perusal of the relevant Wikipedia Page, I learned just how odd the towers are. Originally relying on arc lights, a form of electrical lighting that predated the incandescent light bulb, several cities built the towers to illuminate whole neighborhoods. Those that Austin put up, which the city acquired from Detroit, rise 165 feet high – imagine looking up at their striking glow in the 1890s, before light bulbs even featured in domestic settings.

Chicon and MLK.
The towers became obsolete quickly, presumably after streetlights became commonplace. They were so bright that they must have become a nuisance to the people living beneath after the initial excitement wore off; the glow stayed on all night. Austin, which originally built 31 towers, took down fourteen and eventually moved all but six. Still, they achieved listing as historic landmarks in 1970 and have steadily gained appreciation in the decades since. The timing of their recognition, in the midst of Austin’s metamorphosis into a center of counterculture and general weirdness, seems appropriate.

Moontowers became part of popular culture’s vernacular due to a memorable party scene set at the base of a tower (specially built for the movie, alas) in Dazed and Confused. Early on in the movie, a much anticipated house party is spoiled by a suspicious father. After several hours of cruising the town’s strips and pool halls, Wooderson, played by Matthew McConaughey in his archetypal role, rolls up in his car, the Melba Toast, to announce the party at the moontower to an intrigued, bookish female. “I love them redheads,” he intones with wonderful insouciance as he turns away, much to the disgust of her companions. Later on, after the keg is well on its way to being tapped, several upperclassmen take the movie’s freshman protagonist along with them as they climb to the top of the moontower.

Guadalupe and 9th. There's the state capitol to the right.
With my mind on the moontowers, I saw them everywhere on my recent visit. They’re all close to downtown, seeing as Austin was a small city in the 1890s when they were built. There’s one right in the middle of Zilker Park, where my host Tom and I tried to go swimming at Barton Springs (closed for cleaning; we repaired to Deep Eddy Pool). One cropped up just south of where I used to live in the Cherrywood Neighborhood. And one afternoon, when Tom, Lynda and I went to the top of a parking garage for a city view as part of the Servant Girl Annihilator Tour (don’t ask), we came practically face to face with one on West Twelfth. The handful that remain are like prehistoric beasts, lonely and somewhat ignored, at least in day-to-day existence, but shining on despite their irrelevance to the modern city.

Looking towards the Hill Country. I believe the the moontower visible is at West 12th and Blanco.

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