The old Robert Mueller Municipal Airport control tower, an elegant architectural remnant of the 1960s marooned within the residential development burgeoning on the old airfield property, should have historic zoning status, Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission recommended Monday evening.
The unanimous vote sends the matter to the city Planning Commission. The zoning change, which would not apply to the much larger surrounding block of undeveloped land, likely will come this spring before the Austin City Council, which makes the final decision.
The new zoning, supporters said at the commission meeting, would preserve the 84-foot tower “in perpetuity.”
Beyond that, local historic zoning, along with possible state historical status (a process yet to begin), would make it easier to bypass certain building code requirements that would allow for public access to the 57-year-old tower at some point in the future.
The tower and surrounding terminal (which was demolished in 2002 after the airport was shuttered) opened in 1961 at a ceremony attended by then-Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Robert Mueller Municipal Airport had debuted in 1930 humbly, with a few wooden structures and gravel runways. It was named for a city commissioner (what members of the city’s governing body were called at that time) who died in 1927. Commercial air travel began there in 1936, according to the Historic Landmark Commission staff.
The tower and terminal — designed by noted Austin architects Arthur Fehr and Charles Granger who specialized in what has come to be known as midcentury modern style — were part of an overall airport upgrade to respond to the emergence of jet airliner service and Austin’s growth.
The nine-story structure, on Berkman Drive in East Austin, is surrounded by a black metal fence and kept locked. Inside, it is a compact 18-feet-square at the base, expanding to 20-feet-by-20-feet at the control room on the top. That small footprint is dominated by steep and narrow concrete stairs, an abandoned elevator shaft and one or two tiny rooms on each floor that, until the airport’s 1999 closure, were work space for airport staff.
The tower’s sole residents now: owls that, entering and exiting through an east-facing window that Mueller developer Catellus purposely leaves slightly open, have made a pungent home in one of those rooms.
Catellus, designated by the city about 15 years ago to develop the 711-acre airport property, has not made specific plans for reuse of the tower, but officials have said they hear all the time from people wondering what could be done with it. Architects Girard Kinney and Donna Carter, at the behest of Catellus, have been looking at potential reuse of the tower, if for nothing else than brief tours to experience its history and take in the view.
“There is a lot of work, and it’s going to be very expensive to make the observation tower accessible” for those with disabilities, Kinney said. That would include reinstalling an elevator. “That’s our goal. And the first step was the local historic designation.”