The 155-foot tall Zilker Holiday Tree will start providing its seasonal glow on Sunday, and this year city officials are putting a big present, quite literally, under the tree.
Austin Energy has hired a contractor to embark on a $2.1 million restoration of the city’s 17 historic moonlight towers, one of which forms the trunk for the brightly lit Zilker tree. The restoration project, which could begin with some towers as early as next month, will involve everything from repainting the structures to replacing the mercury-vapor lights and fixing faulty circuit breakers.
Installed in the mid-1890s to light up several street blocks at a time, Austin’s moonlight towers became Texas state landmarks in 1970 and were added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976. Repairs must be made historically accurate, and often that means parts are forged from scratch, said Lee Emmick, Austin Energy’s project manager for the contract.
“We have to restore them to their original state, minus the lead paint of course,” Emmick said. “If anything breaks, we have molds to cast new parts from.”
Austin originally bought 31 moonlight towers from Detroit, but has lost 14 of them over the years to street construction, car accidents and general deterioration. Many cities installed such lights in the 1880s and 1890s, but Austin is the only city that still enjoys their artificial glow, according to austinmoonlight.com.
The towers went through their last major restoration effort from 1993 to 1995, not long after Matthew McConaughey’s character hollered, “Party at the moon tower!” in the film “Dazed and Confused.” They’ve been maintained as needed since then.
The contract with Enertech Resources includes repairs to 15 towers and the replacement of two others — one from West Fourth and Nueces streets, the other from East Third and Red River streets — that were temporarily moved to storage because of construction projects. In addition to the first round of work worth up to $2.1 million, the city can renew the contract with Enertech for three one-year terms, each one worth $600,000, to continue the maintenance.
Austin Energy spokesman Carlos Cordova said it took a while to find the right company to handle the towers’ maintenance because they wanted a company experienced with specialized restoration work.
“The moonlight towers are historic and special to Austin, and we wanted to make sure the work was done correctly,” Cordova said.