Austin’s best-known architectural duo Fehr & Granger are remembered locally for the classic midcentury designs they brought to the city, with iconic buildings like the whimsical control tower and terminal of the former Mueller Airport. But this famed partnership of modernists also worked on a few projects that didn’t pan out, and we often find that unbuilt plans contain some of the boldest visions for Austin’s future, if not always the most realistic — this is certainly the case with Fehr & Granger’s forgotten 1960s design for a gondola lift suspended over Lake Austin.
This remarkable transit novelty, also sometimes called a cable car, was the brainchild of former University of Texas football player and local developer Maurice Doke, who served two terms in the Texas House of Representatives from 1963 to 1967 while also somehow finding the time to come up with plans involving gondolas.
The project, first announced in 1964 with an expected cost of $4 million, would construct a marina and apartment project in the 1500 block of Scenic Drive just south of the city-owned Walsh Boat Landing, with the gondola connecting the Austin side to a proposed tourist complex on the Westlake shore including a hotel, restaurant, and conference center at the site of the now-defunct club and music venue the Lake Austin Inn. The gondola system, to be manufactured by a firm in Switzerland and described in news coverage at the time as a “sky-ride,” would carry 25 passenger cabins supported by two 125-foot concrete pillars anchored in the lakebed.
“This skyride project is one of the greatest assets Austin could have.”
— S. P. Kinser, City of Austin Zoning Commissioner
The project and its potential tourist draw received strong support in the business community at the time, and the city was friendly to the concept as well — but in a very Austin-like turn of events, the proposal fell apart in 1965 over concerns about parking. The tight spaces of properties along Lake Austin Boulevard left no room for a parking lot substantial enough to support the traffic Doke’s project was expected to produce, and a proposed agreement for the facility to share parking with an adjacent city-owned lot was refused as an unacceptable private encroachment on public land.
The lack of a reasonable solution to the parking problem led Doke to eventually withdraw his grand plans. A residential building, currently operating as the Lakehouse Condos, now stands at 1500 Scenic Drive in a region still known as “The Doke,” though the source of its name is forgotten to many. Doke died in 2018, living long enough to see the failure of another proposed gondola in downtown Austin more than 50 years later — it doesn’t look like we’ll ever get one of those things around here.