Some folks don’t see things they used to see downtown. And some folks don’t hear something they used to hear downtown.
Austinite Kaye Trybus is in that latter category. And she’s not happy about what she doesn’t hear any more. I have good news for her. And if you’re the kind of person who likes to find stuff to blame on the folks who’ve moved downtown in recent years, I have something else for your list.
Trybus contacted me after my recent column about complaints about the temporary portable bathroom now unartfully placed next to the Buford Tower on West Cesar Chavez Street near Colorado Street just north of Lady Bird Lake. (Stay tuned for a discussion of whether it’s a lake or a river.) Trybus’ concern was not about the temporary bathroom.
“My real concern was the Buford Tower itself,” Trybus said. “It used to chime. And I keep waiting for that to chime again – the time and all – because I really liked hearing it. I wonder what happened to that.”
Many Austinites know the 67-foot tower’s history. Built in 1930 as a fire drill tower, it was replaced in 1974 by a more modern one on Pleasant Valley Road. The old tower survived thanks to efforts by those who loved it.
“After being abandoned for nearly four years and undisturbed by regular human activity, the tower stood with its arched windows wide open, eventually becoming a six-story pigeon coop,” says the application that got it on the National Register of Historic Places. “Its condition deteriorated and soon was marked for demolition.”
Effie Kitchens, wife of original contractor Rex Kitchens, helped lead the preservation effort. The rehabbed tower was rededicated in 1978 and renamed in memory of James L. Buford, an Austin firefighter who died in a 1972 rescue attempt.
“The restoration also included the installation of a carillon which produced bell-like chimes and songs electronically,” the historic places application said. “Thus, the tower was given a much-needed makeover and a new function altogether.”
A plaque on the tower designates it as the “Buford Tower & Kitchens Memorial Chimes” and notes it’s “A Renovation Project Sponsored by Austin Chapter National Association (of) Women In Construction and Mrs. Rex D. Kitchens.”
So, what happened to the chimes?
First, this question: Who doesn’t like towers with chimes? Turns out the answer is people who live near towers with chimes, even if the chiming tower was there before those people moved in.
The good news is the Buford Tower electronic bells still toll for us, just not as loudly as they used to.
“The sound has been lowered due to many complaints from the new neighbors in the condos across the street,” city spokesman Andy Tate told me. “Grounds crews have confirmed that the bells are tolling at their designated times.”
I can also confirm that, up close and personal. The city unlocked the tower for me and photographer Ricardo Brazziell. We headed to the top floor and pushed open the overhead hatch that leads to the eight speakers in a 360-degree array. Yes, speakers. Remember, I told you these are electronic chimes, controlled by a once-modern-looking console on the second floor. This is the Tyme Stryke model Digital Auto-Bell Instrument made by Schulmerich Carrillons Inc. of Sellersville, Pa. The box it came in is next to it, and the gizmo is next to an older out-of-service version.
(Memo to Mayor Steve Adler: You probably should send somebody into the tower every so often to dust.)
The familiar Westminster Chimes and one chime for each hour sound on weekdays from at 7 a.m. until 8 p.m. On weekends, first bell is at 9 a.m. and the last is at 7 p.m.
For many years, sound advice about the tower came from Dale Muenzler, who took on the volunteer task through personal interest in such things. A mechanic by trade, Muenzler, 74, got into the cash register business and also worked for American Airlines.
Muenzler’s downtown running regimen and love of carillons (he’d fixed some in a couple of churches he attended) combined to get him involved with the Buford Tower. In 2008 or so he noticed the bells weren’t functioning properly. He traced down the right person in city government and “We met down there and got it running.”
He also was involved in turning down the volume, something he’s not particularly happy about.
“We figured out that what was driving people crazy was it was running all the time,” Muenzler said. “It was constantly playing, which was way too much.”
He recalls it was every 15 minutes, which does sound like too much of a good thing.
“We reprogrammed it and turned it to a level they thought would be OK. And we reprogrammed it to only play several times a day,” he said.
He figures it’s about half the volume it had been. Used to be you could hear on the other side of the lake, he says. Sounds to me like you now can’t hear it more than a few blocks away, if that. It’s indeed a pleasant sound, one that I might not mind hearing periodically if I could afford a downtown condo.
Muenzler says it’s sad that the volume had to be cranked down.
“It sure is. I think that people that moved down there can close their windows if they don’t like it,” he said. “But you know there’s going to be somebody down there that’s going to want to protest and take it to court.”
Though he now lives in the Houston area, Muenzler remains wise to the ways of some Austinites.
And while we’re talking about the ways of Austinites, while I was at the Buford Tower I ran into two visitors from out of town chatting with the attendant at the temporary bathroom about whether the body of water they were looking at is a river or a lake. Lake, said the friendly attendant. The visitors were from Wisconsin, which has some likes, including two Great ones.
“I am definitely looking at a river,” first-time Austin visitor Joan Gabrielson of LaFarge, Wisc., told me.
I did my best to explain the whole Colorado River and dams and Town Lake/Lady Bird Lake thing. I failed.
“That’s not a lake,” Gabrielson insisted.
I asked if it would be OK if we continued to call it a lake.
“You go ahead and call it a lake,” she said. “I’m only here for four days.”
See video with this column at mystatesman.com.