Moonlight Towers

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Photo by Christopher Schmitt

For many Austinites, it just wouldn’t be the holidays without a spin under the Zilker Holiday Tree. The tree, when lit, is a sight to behold, standing 155 feet tall, with 120-foot diameter, 39 streamers—each with 81 red, yellow, green and blue bulbs—and a double star with an additional 150 bulbs: nearly 3,500 bulbs in all!

What’s holding up all those lights? A moonlight tower, that’s what. Moonlight towers are lighting structures that illuminate the city at night. Once popular throughout the United States and Europe, the towers were built where it was impractical or too expensive to use standard street lighting, or used in addition to gas street lighting.

When first erected, Austin’s moonlight towers were connected to electric generators at the Austin Dam—Tom Miller Dam as it is known today. In the 1920s, they used carbon-arc lamps; however, these were very time consuming to maintain and therefore were replaced by mercury vapor lamps in the ‘30s. A central switch was added during World War II to allow for citywide blackouts in case of air raids.

Moonlight_towerOnce electric street lighting became more common and moonlight towers were deemed unnecessary, every tower in the US and Europe was dismantled—except those in Austin—and today, the 17 towers still standing are the only ones remaining in the world. To protect these iconic landmarks from demolition, the towers were recognized as Texas State Landmarks in 1970; in 1976, they were listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1986, they were designated as State Archaeological Landmarks.

In 1993, the city of Austin dismantled the towers and restored every bolt, turnbuckle, and guy-wire as part of a $1.3 million project. The culmination of the project, which was completed in 1995, was celebrated with a city-wide festival.

Which brings us back to the most recognized moonlight tower of them all: the one that holds up the Zilker Tree. To see the tree light up in all its splendor, head down to Zilker Park on November 29 at 6pm. The tree lighting ceremony will feature prelude music by the Austin Civic Wind Ensemble and the Barton Hills Choir, and the tree will remain lit through December 31.

From everyone at Blairfield Realty, we hope have a very happy and safe holiday season!

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