The Buford Tower conceals three secrets.
The graceful, six-story Italianate structure poised above Lady Bird Lake is a fire tower without any fires to fight, a bell tower without real bells.
It bears plaques honoring two people, one a firefighter, the other a builder. Yet their names don’t trip off the tongues of most Austinites.
Drivers along West Cesar Chavez Street — and even walkers or bikers who skirt its ornamental gates, designed by architect Wayne Bell, by veering south of the tower — are clueless as to its function and history.
A city of Austin report dates the building to 1930. At the start of the Great Depression, it was planted above the 100-year floodplain of the Colorado River before dams and lakes were built upstream to make downtown flooding extremely rare.
Its purpose was clear: To help train firefighters as Austin’s building stock rose steadily in height. Designed by Roy White, it contains six small, stacked rooms with concrete floors. Two types of brick line the walls.
“The basement was built for practice fires,” says a Heritage Texas Historical Foundation magazine article published in 1988. “Firefighters could practice aerial ladder work, flood the upper stories, scale and the walls conduct rescue drills through the windows.”
The article adds: “It burnt regularly for 43 years!”
In 1966, the city attacked the problem in a different way by purchasing a $50,000 snorkel truck with a basket connected to a jointed hydraulic boom. It could be raised 75 feet in the air and extended 39 feet horizontally. So firefighters were no longer confined to ladders based on trucks.
Still, the new device was auditioned at the brick tower on the lake.
Not everyone appreciated the old fire tower on its way out of service. A July 1970 article called it: “A perpendicular monster on the banks of Town Lake.”
According to newspaper reports, it closed in 1974 when a bigger, less elegant training tower was built on Pleasant Valley Road on land that is now part of Roy G. Guerrero Colorado River Park.
So that explains the first secret: What the heck was it built to do? But why is it named Buford Tower?
Two years before it closed, tragedy struck on the other side of Austin.
As it tends to do, Shoal Creek rose to dangerous levels in June 1972. Two teens lost control of their motorcycle near Balcones Drive and Anderson Lane.
Emergency responders tried to reach the boys as they attempted to pull the bike from the creek. One boy, a student at Lanier High School, drowned.
Veteran Austin Fire Department Captain James L. Buford had strapped himself to a pole, but somehow the safety device came loose and he was washed into a series of drainage pipes, according to a June 18, 1972, American-Statesman article.
Buford died later at what was then known as Brackenridge Hospital.
A Cedar Park resident and volunteer with the Cedar Park Fire Department as well, Buford left behind a wife and three children.
His death shocked the city.
The last time a firefighter died from injuries incurred during an emergency was decades earlier. In June 1916, Jim T. Glass broke his spine while battling a fire at the Kreisle Building at 412 Congress Ave. He died more than a year later.
The first firefighter killed in action — another testament to the fury of Central Texas floods — was Edward Quinn, who perished in the giant April 22, 1915, torrent that joined Shoal and Waller creeks and wiped out residential districts along those waterways. Debris from the two creeks, including houses, met in the middle of the Colorado River.
After Buford’s death, Austinites raised money to help his family. The next summer, firefighters gathered at the Northwest Fire Station to plant a pecan tree and a marker in memory of the 20-year veteran.
Now we know about Buford, what about the third secret? What about the chimes?
By the mid-1970s, the tower was marked for demolition. Its salvation was born in the monumental effort, inspired by Lady Bird Johnson and executed by Ann and Roy Butler, to transform the mucky, weedy land around the lake into a landscaped hike-and-bike trail. Volunteers did much of the work. Women’s garden clubs signed up to clean, shape and plant different stretches along the lake.
The Austin chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction did more than their share of the work. On the south bank, they built a lily-like gazebo and reflecting pond, recently restored and rededicated. On the north shore, they chose to renovate the tower.
“When the fire tower is completely restored we feel that this will be one of the most salient tourist attractions in Austin,” wrote the group leader. “And (it) will add to the beautification of Town Lake.”
That’s where the bells come in. Plans were made to turn what looks like an Italian Renaissance bell tower into a working replica. The wife of the late Rex. D. Kitchens, whose company built the tower in 1930, made a substantial gift to purchase some sort of carillon.
The printed dedication program from April 23, 1978, housed at the Austin History Center, notes the double naming honors for Buford and Kitchens.
“That was my husband’s first job when he first went into business during Depression days,” Effie Kitchens said in 1978. “I love Austin, he loved Austin, Austin did a lot for us and I wanted to give something back.”
The Kitchens Memorial Chimes — which mark the time and play holiday music in season — never came in the form of bronze bells. Rather an electronic carillon was installed in 1978. To this day, it is the only resident of the building.
“Buford Tower instantly connects us to a different time in Austin’s history when it was among the tallest of our downtown buildings,” architectural historian Kim McKnight says. “I especially love that such care was taken to ensure that a utilitarian building, constructed for firefighter training, would be a beautiful work of architecture.”
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, culture and history.