“At mid-morning one day last week, driving west of Congress on Sixth Street was like suddenly moving into a dream world,” wrote Austin American-Statesman columnist Inez C. Jeffery on November 4, 1973.
“The morning sun was shining on the gold wall of the new American Bank building, and the reflection became a path of gold on the street. As one drove into the area, the shimmer of the gold reflection enveloped the car and filtered to the inside. Austin’s skyline is beginning to shape up and take on the appearance of a big city,” she wrote.
But Austin’s own El Dorado wouldn’t last. The streets of gold Inez discovered in the downtown of 1973 faded into memory only 20 years later, with 3,600 panes of gilded glass pried off the 21-story bank tower at West Sixth and Lavaca Streets and interred, without ceremony, in dumpsters bound for a local landfill.
A few hundred of the panes, weighing roughly 300 pounds each, were rescued by savvy decorators and collectors, and they’re probably still out there, somewhere — but perhaps more people might have paid attention to the dumpsters if they’d known the glass actually contained real gold. It did.
What’s now known as the Chase Bank Tower at 221 West Sixth Street has operated under quite a few names — MBank Tower, Bank One Tower, and so on — since its construction as the American Bank Plaza between 1972 and 1974. American Bank, by the way, was founded in 1890 by George Washington Littlefield, a name you’ll probably recognize if you’ve been around town for a while.
Built for $17 million in a joint venture between the bank and Century Development Corporation, a firm associated with late Houston developer Kenneth L. Schnitzer, the tower enjoyed only a single glorious year as Austin’s tallest building, until the 1975 completion of the Austin National Bank Tower just two blocks over at 515 Congress Avenue kicked it from its golden throne by only 14 feet.
The American Bank building’s defining cosmetic feature — its only cosmetic feature, really — was known quite glamorously as the “Golden Mirror,” a 170,000-square-foot exterior sheath of reflective, gold-tinted glass panels.
The inch-thick insulated panes, which contained a small amount of gold alloy, were said to reduce the solar heat gain of the tower by 80 percent, increasing the efficiency of its heating and cooling systems. Plus, the reflective nature of the glass meant the building’s office-dwellers wouldn’t need drapes.
“The glass skin reflects rays but neither creates nor magnifies the solar load,” explained John Paukune of Century Development Corporation to the Austin American-Statesman in 1973. “Therefore, the building does not cause any startling change in the ambient temperature of the area because of its reflective characteristics”
But regardless of its technical benefits, the bullion-colored building was extremely on brand for a bank headquarters sporting a luxurious private club on its top floor, though the look was not without its detractors. Remember, two bank towers rose in downtown Austin in the 1970s, and each was the city’s new tallest building after its completion — the American Bank Plaza’s golden box in 1974 and the monolithic black Austin National Bank Tower in 1975. The skyline’s rapid evolution was all just a little too modern for some residents:
Now that the Philistines have had their turn at Austin’s downtown skyline — and surely everyone has gasped in ecstasy over the”black is beautiful” functional cube, if they haven’t already lost their head over the Johnson’s Wax golden mirror job — perhaps the Building Permit and Zoning Regulations Departments will accept some creative rules or regulations for any further construction in the mile-square:
- From now on nothing can be built which does not at least dwarf its predecessor.
- Black, gold and white having been used, only tasteful fluorescent exteriors will be permissible.
- Energy consumption of each new building shall at least equal that which can be produced by the Decker Lake Power Plant.
- No new building shall have less than 400 million candlepower nighttime floodlighting.
- For each new building constructed an equal space for downtown parking will be eliminated. This will facilitate expansion of mass transport with horse-drawn trolleys being the preferred option.
— Letter, Austin American-Statesman, 1975
Despite the glitz and glitter it lent the early Austin skyline, it appears the golden mirror had some downsides. Though the exact reason for its fall from favor isn’t entirely clear, the most common complaint is that the glare from the sun’s reflection off the building blinded downtown drivers.
Its reflective, insulated glass covering soon became notorious with motorists. Sunlight glancing off the gold-colored glass blinded drivers on nearby streets.
— Austin American-Statesman, June 5, 1987
But anecdotally, residents have variously claimed the same phenomenon may have posed a danger to airline pilots, or that the reflective properties of the mirrored glass, despite the reassurance of Century Development Corporation, actually did increase the solar heat gain of surrounding buildings — leading to lawsuits from its neighbors.
Whatever the cause, as the building — now known as Bank One Tower — drew closer its 20th birthday, the end of downtown’s golden age appeared on the horizon. Seattle real estate firm Westgroup Partners purchased the building for $10.5 million in December 1991, and almost immediately announced plans for its renovation.
Bank One Tower, a 21-story gold reflective office tower that has marked the downtown skyline since the mid-1970s, is getting a new owner and may be getting a new look.
Bill Walters, a broker with Reed Properties who represented the buyers along with M.K. Poth, said the new owners “strongly contemplate” a major renovation that will include replacing the building’s gold exterior. He said they are also considering building a dummy floor to cap the top floor and improve the appearance of the building.
“Westgroup is considering a plan to reskin the building and revitalize the building,” Walters said. “No more gold box. They also are interesting in raising the height of the building.”
Bank One Tower, which takes up a city block at 221 W. Sixth St., has been an eye-catching structure because its mirror-like gold exterior reflects the rising and setting sun.
“It’s a good property to be revitalized,” Walters said. “It’s an antiquated window covering, and it also reflects a tremendous amount of heat in the summer.”
— Austin American-Statesman, December 31, 1991
The renovation of the building came as a great relief to some — or at least a great relief to their eyes, it seems:
‘Goldfinger’ is a goner. The new owners of the Bank One Tower, that golden monument to garishness, are going to resurface the thing with a new color. No more are we to be zapped like bugs by the building’s late-afternoon reflected rays. No more our eyes to be assaulted by what looks like an upended box of dime store candy. Allow me, sir, to register my approval of this long-overdue step.
— Letter, Austin American-Statesman, 1993
The remodel, with new exterior colors and a 40-foot roof addition designed by local architects Page Southerland Page, was completed by 1994, giving the tower the appearance we know and quickly forget in the present day.
It’s not that the tower is ugly now, but its design was just never particularly interesting in the first place — so after losing the one truly unique feature of its exterior, it’s hard not to miss the boldness of the old look. It may technically be easier on the eyes after its renovation, but in the sea of blue and brown that is Austin’s modern skyline, the golden mirror would stand out perhaps even more than it did in 1974.