The Robert Mueller airport control tower, an elegant architectural remnant of the 1960s set among a burgeoning residential development on the old airfield property, should have historic zoning status, Austin’s Historic Landmark Commission recommended Monday evening.
The unanimous vote for changing the zoning on a 1,024-square-foot parcel at the tower’s base sends the matter on to the city Planning Commission. The zoning change, which would not apply to the much larger surrounding block of undeveloped land, likely this spring will come 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.”
Local historic zoning, along with possible state historical status (a process yet to begin) could 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 itself 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 began in 1936, according to the Historic Landmark Commission staff.
The tower and terminal, designed by noted Austin architects Fehr and Granger who specialized in what has come to be known as mid-century 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, which sits on what is still an undeveloped block of Mueller along Berkman Drive, is surrounded by a black metal fence and is locked. Inside, it is a compact 18-feet-square at the base, expanding to 20-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 small rooms on each floor that until the airport’s 1999 closure were work space for airport staff.
Catellus, designated by the city about 15 years ago to develop the 711-acre airport property, has not made specific plans for re-use of the tower, but officials have said they hear all the time from people wondering what could be done with it. Girard Kinney, an architect hired by Catellus, said he had been told that some people have approached the developer wanting to buy it and create what would be the city’s most unique dwelling.
The developer supports the zoning change, a Catellus official said during the commission meeting, and all of the half dozen or so speakers were in favor of it. The landmark commission itself initiated the zoning change.