At 515 feet, the Frost Bank Tower at 401 Congress Avenue was downtown Austin’s tallest building after its grand opening in 2004, but found itself quickly surpassed by the 360 Condominiums in 2008, which stood higher by a mere 47 feet. Still, four years of being the tallest in town ain’t bad, right?
As Austin’s growth continues seemingly unabated, at the ripe old age of 15 the Frost Tower’s already dropped down to our city’s fifth-tallest building overall, and if many of the projects we’ve discussed on this very site make it past the drawing board, it will soon barely crack the top ten.
Still, if you’re looking for a “signature tower” in modern-day Austin, the Frost Tower is likely at the top of your list — you’d be hard-pressed to find a current artistic vision of our skyline that didn’t feature it prominently, sometimes more prominently than the Capitol dome itself. It’s even included at the top of your driver’s license, if you’re lucky enough to live in Texas.
But don’t let the seemingly unanimous acceptance of the tower as an Austin icon in the present day fool you. Back when the building first appeared on the scene, its reception wasn’t all roses and sunshine. Even before its completion, the tower’s height, size, color, and the dramatic look of its faceted glass crown courtesy of designers Duda/Paine Architects received a lot of criticism — some vehement, some a bit more good-natured.
Take the, uh, exotic top on the new Frost Bank Tower at Fourth and Congress, at 515 feet the tallest building in Austin. You can’t miss the crown on this building. It appears to have been built to make contact with Mars. It’s a big 100-foot-tall glass spectacle that reminds me of a pair of nose hair clippers.
This is one of those buildings that begs for a funny name. My suggestion? How about the Tweezer Building?
Really, the crown looks like some kind of cutting tool. Perhaps the artist designed it that way so King Kong wouldn’t have a place to sit.
— John Kelso, Austin American-Statesman, Sept. 2003
Longtime Statesman art critic Jeanne Claire van Ryzin also weighed in on the project’s design that same month, with perhaps a slightly more serious take than Kelso’s:
The architects of Austin’s tallest building say their design will shape memories of the city.
“There’s no historic context to the skyline in most cities (the size of Austin),” said Turan Duda, design principal of Duda/Paine Architects, the Durham, N.C.-based designers. “But Austin has some specific historic context in terms of its skyline with the UT Tower and the State Capitol. We wanted to respect that (historical context), but we also wanted to add to it and give the skyline some symbolic reference.”
Duda recalled glimpsing the Austin skyline on a ride into town from the airport soon after his firm was hired. He said he was discouraged with most of the tall buildings he saw. “They all seemed to be a very different era (from now),” he said. With Frost Bank Tower, Duda strove to make the building as sculptural as possible — from graduating the mass of the building into narrower widths as the building goes upward to blurring the line where the tower meets the pyramidal crown to cladding the ground floors in smooth limestone. The choice of a low-reflective yet energy-efficient glass — a technologically sophisticated material — is a nod to Austin’s high-tech profile. And so is the luminous crown of glass. As day shifts to night, the crown will glow brighter and brighter from within. “Rather than letting that transition be incidental, we decided to make it magical,” Duda said.
Some however, don’t see the magic. “Skylines trace a memorable image of the city . . . they mark the place that we all belong to,” said Kevin Keim, director of the Charles Moore Center for the Study of Place, an architectural research and study center. ”(But the Frost Bank Tower) seems to be neither here nor there because so many of these buildings have cropped up in cities across America. This building doesn’t seem to say anything particular or special about Austin.”
Perhaps that’s because it’s difficult to ascertain what style the Frost Bank Tower is trying for. Maybe, then, it’s time to come up with a new one: Corporate Monumentalism, anyone? The jagged form of the crown looks more like a riff on the post-modern ornamentation of the 1980s than any kind of newly inspired form. And though native Texas limestone clads the lower floors, Keim has a good point — the new tower looks like it could be in Anycity, USA.
— Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Austin American-Statesman, Sept. 2003
“Austin’s newest skyscraper is certainly big and certainly tall,” van Ryzen concluded. “However, maybe the next time around we can hope for some architectural beauty.” Letters from readers around this time period weren’t much kinder:
So, what’s the story on the Frost Bank Tower? We dreamed of a magnificent, gleaming tower soaring over the city. And all we got was this stunted blob.
Everything seemed fine, until that mess on top appeared. It seems proportionately too small for the rest of the building. The hodge-podge of angles, lines and curves looks like a depiction of a nervous breakdown. Are those circles supposed to be clocks? Could anyone read the time from them? And the color — where did the sea green come from, on top of a basically silver and glass structure with a faint, bluish cast?
I had hope when it was a skeleton, but then the material that fills in the frame appeared. It just looks dirty on sunny days, disappears on cloudy days, and somehow, manages to dwarf the whole structure. This building looks more than unfinished. It looks ill-conceived.
— Letter, Austin American-Statesman, Oct. 2003
I had high hopes for the Frost Bank Tower as it was being built. But, plain steel and clear glass with white lights shout, “Anywhere else United States!”
I keep hoping the owners will see the proverbial light and add some color to the top. Imagine it: varying funky colored lights to mark the seasons, holidays, whatever. Make it random, surprise us, but please just do it. Then it would have the character and personality to match Austin.
— Letter, Austin American-Statesman, Jan. 2005
Even at the time, these criticisms weren’t universal among Austinites — the tower won the Austin Chronicle’s “Best New Architecture” award for five consecutive years, 2004 to 2008, until it hit the end of its term limit and literally couldn’t win again:
Of course, there are some far stranger criticisms of the Frost Tower’s design, but they take a lot longer to explain. It’s well-established by now that the building looks an awful lot like an owl from some angles, though the widespread belief that one of its architects was a Rice University graduate and designed the tower to subtly resemble the school’s owl mascot is sadly nothing but an urban myth.
For some, the owl resemblance signals a much darker meaning related to the Bohemian Grove, a secluded California campground where a private club of wealthy and powerful individuals — former U.S. presidents, CEOs, and so forth — gather yearly for a summer retreat and participate in strange, but also very goofy rituals. Like Freemasonry and other secretive fraternal orders, the Bohemian Club attracts a lot of attention from the conspiracy theory crowd, specifically the popular concept of a so-called New World Order manipulating the governments and people of our planet from behind the scenes.
Those who accept these conspiracies as fact also tend to believe these shadowy groups are constantly placing visible symbols of their power out in the open, either for the purpose of desensitizing the populace to their hidden meanings or just out of sheer ego — this is why people get weird about the pyramid on the back of dollar bills, for one. Symbolism involving owls was used frequently by the Enlightenment-era secret society known as the Illuminati, which you might consider the granddaddy of the organizations implicated in these modern conspiracies — and whaddaya know, an owl is also the mascot of the present-day Bohemian Club.
There’s even a massive statue of an owl at the Grove campsite, where the Bohemians perform a specific ritual called the Cremation of Care at their gathering every year. Though for most people owls have a symbolic association with wisdom — that’s probably why Rice picked it as a mascot, not to mention those Tootsie Pop commercials — for many of those who buy into the rest of the stuff we’re explaining here, the owl represents a manifestation of the Canaanite god figure Moloch, who shows up in the Bible and was associated with human sacrifice in other texts.
You’ll find mentions of Moloch, along with other ancient deities like Baal, in a lot of conspiracy narratives about Freemasons and other secret societies like the Bohemian Club — and the fact that those guys literally do rituals in front of a creepy owl statue probably doesn’t help their case. Still, the Bohemians allege that their owl has nothing to do with Moloch, and that any misconceptions about its purpose are the fault of one man: Alex Jones, Austin’s own conspiracy theorist radio host, doing his part to destroy the media literacy of average Americans everywhere via the website InfoWars.
Whether it’s alleging that a proposed parking-free residential tower in downtown Austin was actually part of a government plot to eventually make everyone live in concentration camps, or forgetting what grade his children were in during a deposition and blaming the memory loss on a bowl of chili he ate for lunch, we’re huge fans of Jones’ tireless dedication to perfecting the art of the self-own. In addition to the rest of his shenanigans, Jones has a particular fascination with the goings-on at the Bohemian Grove, and managed to infiltrate the compound and film some activities there back in 2000.
As an Austinite who sees signs of clandestine evil and social control all around him and then screams about them, Jones has some interesting takes on local architecture, to say the least — but one of his most self-assured beliefs is that the Frost Bank Tower’s resemblance to an owl is an intentional reference to Moloch, just one of the many occult symbols supposedly routinely employed by the global elite. Here’s Jones in 2008 taking a film crew on a tour of downtown Austin, along with stints in England and Canada, pointing out the alleged symbolism hidden in plain sight in cities around the globe — he starts talking about the Frost Tower around 1:22:
The raw footage, split into 8 parts you can all find here, is fairly entertaining, if not actually informative. Jones starts out standing on Congress Avenue alleging the Capitol is a “Masonic Temple,” and rambles on about the Bohemian Grove from there — in the Austin segments, we hear about symbolism hidden in the design of the Capitol and its grounds, including the Texas Peace Officers’ Memorial. In his discussion of the Frost Bank Tower, Jones also alleges that the building’s floor count of 33 is a reference to the so-called 33 degrees of Freemasonry’s Scottish Rite.
In a more recent video from about five years ago, another conspiracy radio host, Bruce Montalvo, tries to inform a seemingly random selection of downtown Austinites about the sinister origins of the tower’s design, with varying degrees of success:
This is all ridiculous, of course, but there’s one valid takeaway — skyscrapers have tremendous symbolic power, and that power isn’t just determined by a building’s physical scale or form, but also by what its design represents to the individual. For the hosts of the videos above, the Frost Tower is metaphorical, a constant reminder that evil forces they believe are actually shaping the world from the shadows have raised a monument to their power over Austin, in plain view of its unsuspecting citizens and complete with a literal glowing pyramid, just in case the owl thing was too subtle.
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“The Owl” When it was built, the 33-story Frost Bank Tower was the tallest in Austin. When I moved to Austin, it was one of the iconic holdings pointed out to me; it looks like a giant, futuristic owl when seen from the corners. Materials used: Strathmore Mixed Media 8×5, Sakura Micron Brown technical pen, Tombow dual brush markers #artistsofinstagram #instaart #austinartist #penandinksketch #tombowdualbrush #micronart #SketchInstadaily #sketchcollector #allofsketches #inkedartgroup #pigmamicron #sketch #penandinkalliance #frostbanktower #downtownaustin #owl #owlsofinstagram
To the critics quoted earlier in this article, however, the tower is kind of boring, generic, or even ugly — assuming their opinions haven’t softened in the years since. Meanwhile, the rest of us just think it’s a pretty nice building. The fact that a single design can elicit this range of responses is a testament to architecture’s ability to move you — you get moved one way or the other, but the building just sits there.
More importantly, the conspiracies about the building’s symbolism don’t even do its real story justice. The Frost Bank Tower broke ground on November 27, 2001, making it the first high-rise project in America to start construction after the 9/11 attacks — which, in their immediate aftermath, had caused some experts to speculate that newfound fears of terrorism could actually bring the era of tall buildings to an end.
Instead, based on engineering lessons learned the hard way from the collapse of the World Trade Center, modern high-rise structures are now designed with better safety standards than ever before — and due to the timing of its groundbreaking, the Frost Tower arguably represents the first step towards this new generation of skyscrapers. If the building has to be a symbol of anything, that’s probably not a bad place to start.