Preservation Magazine, Winter 2017

Austin's Iconic Moontowers By The Numbers

Austin Moon Tower

photo by: Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

Austin Moon Towers Map

Even before Matthew McConaughey’s character David Wooderson announced a party “out at the moontower” in the 1993 movie Dazed and Confused, the moonlight towers of Austin, Texas, symbolized the city. A 19th-century precursor to now-standard streetlights, the towers were once popular throughout the United States—but today, only Austin’s remain.

"For many people, it was the first time they experienced electric lighting," says Catherine Cordeiro Gabb, a 2016 alum of UT-Austin's historic preservation graduate program and the writer of a National Historic Landmark nomination for the moontowers. "All of a sudden, you could do things after 7 o'clock in the evening."

At a Glance

Height: Roughly 160 feet

Weight: About 5,000 pounds

Material: Rust-proof wrought iron from the Star Iron Tower Company

Constructed: 1894–1895

$2.50 was the daily salary of the city’s first “tower trimmer” in the years after the structures were built. The trimmer would ascend all 31 original towers each day to maintain and replace the arc light lamps’ carbon rods.

17 moonlight towers still exist. Fifteen (shown in blue) are standing, and two are in storage. In 2014 the Austin City Council passed a resolution authorizing an ongoing $3.9 million project to repair, restore, and maintain the towers, which are managed by Austin Energy.

3,159 colored lights adorn the city’s most iconic moonlight tower in Zilker Metropolitan Park each December, when it is converted into the Zilker Park Holiday Tree. The structure was disassembled for repairs last April and reinstalled after four months of work.

6 carbon arc lamps were originally fitted to each tower, giving off a blue-white light that reached 3,000 feet in diameter. While they were commonly referred to as “moonlight towers” by the 1930s, the towers’ lunar connection was referenced as early as 1894.

Katharine Keane is a former editorial assistant at Preservation Magazine. She enjoys getting lost in new cities, reading the plaques at museums, and discovering the next great restaurant.

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