City invests more funding into restoring historic moonlight towers

At 165 feet tall, they’re hard to miss if you’re driving around town. 

Fourteen moonlight towers still stand at locations around Austin. One is at the corner of E. 11th and Lydia St., right next to Demetrius Morris’ business. 

"It’s a good icon, people stop through here and read it and at night it gives a little light here," said Morris, owner of Nice-N-Clean Hand Car Wash & Detail. 

Morris watched crews take down the tower to restore it a few years ago. "They had to take it completely down," he said. "We actually had to sit down a couple times and let them take it down and put it back up."

That one is one of a handful crews have fully restored over the years. Seventeen of the 31 original towers remain. Three have been taken down but may be moved to a new location.

The towers even earned a shoutout from Matthew McConaughey in the cult classic ‘Dazed and Confused,’ though the one used in the movie was a mock-up of the one at Zilker Park.

The history of the moonlight towers dates back to the 19th century. They served as streetlights in major cities around the country. In 1895, the 31 towers were brought to Austin from Detroit which no longer had a need for them. Some believe the towers were put up to light dark areas of town after a serial killer, known as the Servant Girl Annihilator, terrorized the area. 

The towers were named a Texas Historical Landmark in 1970 and later added to the U.S National Register of Historic Places. 

"In 1990, they started restoring them and they’ve been restored ever since on a rotational basis," said Michael Pittman, distribution process manager for Austin Energy.

It’s a complicated and expensive process. Pittman says each tower can end up costing around $250,000 to restore.

"To really look at it well you really need to take the tower down and that’s our process right now," said Pittman. "They take them down, they inspect it, replace everything, sandblast it, paint it, put it back up and move on to the next one." 

Today, Austin is believed to have the only remaining moonlight towers in the world.

Pittman said they are trying to restore two to three towers a year. If they maintain that, it will take a couple more years to finish the remaining towers, though they will most likely have to re-inspect them annually.

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