It was 2007 when I tried breaking into the defunct control tower at Austin’s former Robert Mueller Municipal Airport — you can call that “urban exploration” or “criminal trespassing” at your discretion, though at the age of 15 there’s admittedly not much distance between the two. My failed attempt arrived long after the site ceased its final civil aviation operations almost exactly 20 years ago in June 1999, and even a few years after the deal successfully hashed out in 2004 between national real estate firm Catellus and the City of Austin for the redevelopment of the ex-airport into what would soon become the massive urban community now simply known as Mueller.
But the city’s adoption of the project’s master development agreement in 2004 certainly didn’t transform this enormous chunk of land overnight — so when I strolled onto the property like I owned the place one evening three years later with minor juvenile delinquency on the brain, the future neighborhood’s condition was still trapped somewhere between the ghost of an airport and a 700-acre pile of dirt.
Despite the nine-story control tower’s striking midcentury design — which, along with the airport’s now-demolished terminal building, opened in 1961 as one of the most celebrated works by local modernist architects Arthur Fehr and Charles Granger — the structure wasn’t quite so much to look at when I illicitly visited back in 2007, the charming original blue-paneled color scheme hidden behind dull black plexiglass installed as part of a misguided ’80s attempt to refresh its appearance.
The area surrounding the structure was overgrown and fenced-off, and as I’d also quickly discover, the tower itself was completely bricked up at its entrance. Lacking a stepladder to access the handful of broken windows a floor or two off the ground, I dropped my brief career in professional infiltration and took these photos instead.
But the tower stayed with me, and after its historic designation in 2018, the building was back on my mind in a big way. 2019 is an important year for Catellus, as the firm celebrates both the 20th anniversary of the airport’s closure and the 15th anniversary of the deal with the city that enabled the birth of the Mueller we know today, and the developer appears in the mood for a little wish fulfillment — long story short, 12 years after my attempted break-in at the tower, I got to walk right through the door.
When Catellus’ executive vice president Greg Weaver — who appears to be the guy you ask about this sort of thing — offered me a tour, I knew we had to do it right. Though the developer’s work at restoring the exterior design of the structure to its original colorful appearance is highly visible, photos of its interior are relatively scarce online. Keeping that in mind, I brought along a friend — architecture photographer extraordinaire Patrick Wong — to document the inside of the tower and its incredible views of both the downtown Austin skyline and the growing neighborhood around it. Here’s what he came up with, plus a few photos of my own:
(Click each image for a larger view)
Though just getting inside was satisfying enough for me, the question of what Catellus plans to actually do with the tower remains unanswered. The developer is still coy on this subject despite years of uncertainty, but I’m happy to report a small sign of progress on that front. Back in 2014, Weaver told erstwhile Statesman transit guru Ben Wear it was “highly unlikely” the building would ever be opened to the public — now, the official line they’ve provided me is “Catellus is hopeful there will be public access to the tower in the future.”
Of course, that’s easier said than done, and nobody knows this better than the developers. Bringing the tower in line with modern innovations like ADA standards and fire codes would require the construction of a new elevator inside the structure, which would reduce its already dollhouse-like square footage to a level that might prevent anyone from actually enjoying whatever’s left. The building’s new historic status may ease some of those traditional code requirements to a degree, but modernizing the tower while maintaining the integrity of its original design remains a puzzle, to say the least, and Catellus isn’t sharing any more answers at the moment.
Perhaps the easiest future to imagine for the structure is its conversion to a private and very expensive residence, which is why it’s comforting to know the developers claim they’ve turned down many such offers — though they’re very friendly to the tower’s current population of barn owls — stating a desire to instead respect the tower’s roots in local history by keeping it a public amenity whether or not they can figure out how to actually get people inside the thing safely.
Another remaining complication is the empty land currently surrounding the tower, which is eventually slated for some kind of residential mixed-use or office building project. That structure will likely be designed to compliment the tower, or at least not overpower it in a way that would reduce its visibility from different vantage points within Mueller — a consideration Weaver says is definitely something the Catellus folks keep in mind as they move forward.
Mateo Barnstone, who moved to Mueller in 2012, tells me the question of what’s next for the structure appears every couple of weeks among the neighborhood’s residents — “at a meeting, in a Facebook post, it always comes up,” he says. Along with a few restored buildings like the Browning Hangar and Mueller Central, the tower is the most visible remaining trace of Mueller’s unconventional past — and the transformation of the district over the last 15 years is so profound, Barnstone says some new neighbors aren’t even aware of that past at all.
“Some people come here understanding the history, and other people just move to Mueller because they bought a house — they liked the neighborhood, and some of them don’t even know it used to be an airport,” he says. “Those folks are the ones that always ask, ‘Hey, what’s the deal with that tower?’”