East Sixth Street in downtown Austin isn’t always the nicest place to be, but the architectural character and central location of the district has inspired advocates to push for its revitalization in various directions for decades — in the 1970s, the main concern was a lack of retail business in general, while the more modern complaint relates to the dominance of similar bars throughout the district with not much else to do compared to the mixed-use diversity of other downtown nightlife hubs.
Looking west from the intersection of East Sixth and Red River Streets, where a lighted steel star would have towered more than 100 feet overhead if a particularly ambitious 1987 plan had come to fruition.
But in 1987, with Sixth Street becoming the heart of downtown’s live music scene, a group of preservation advocates knew just what the district needed to really aim for the stars — a literal giant star framed in steel, rising an estimated 108 feet or roughly 10 floors straddling the intersection of East Sixth and Red River Streets.
Promoted as a sort of extremely visible gateway to the entertainment district by the Sixth Street Conservation Society — a renewed version of the group first formed in 1969 advocating for the street’s improvement and preservation — the star was expected to cost $250,000, taken from bond money approved for Sixth Street transportation upgrades in 1984, plus an extra $100,000 in donations to install a lighting system on the structure. The society’s founder and star’s designer, late Austin architect and longtime Sixth Street resident David Graeber, compared the project to the Eiffel Tower, calling it “a piece of sculpture to attract attention to the area.”
“This star will say that Sixth Street is a special street…we’re thinking of Sixth Street as it might be 20 years from now, 50 years from now, 100 years from now. We’re thinking of how it might become a dynamic part of Austin, and not just a stagnant part of the city.”
— David Graeber, Austin American-Statesman, February 24, 1987
Part of Graeber’s motivation for erecting the star was the eminent completion of the Salvation Army facility that still stands at 501 East Eighth Street. “The star, Graeber contends, will be sparkly enough to offset the economic impact caused by all those transients he says the Salvation Army will bring to the street,” chuckled longtime Statesman humorist John Kelso — if nothing else, it’s a reminder that the issue of homelessness received a lot more levity in Austin 30 years ago.
Whatever the motivations behind the star, its looming enormousness and associated potential to block views of the Capitol dome generated scathing criticism of the idea — Austin’s a lot taller now than it was in 1987, but a 10-story sculpture on Sixth Street would still attract attention in 2020. Esther’s Follies co-founder and performer Michael Shelton conducted “man on the street” interviews with random passers-by seeking opinions on “Sixth Street’s New Giant Star” as one of the show’s sketches satirizing current events, and a hail of letters to the editor in the Austin American-Statesman backed up ribbing from columnists like Kelso and others:
But popular opinion doesn’t always have what it takes to kill a project around here — it took the Historic Landmark Commission, longtime enemies of downtown fun, to really nail the star’s coffin shut. In an 8-to-1 vote cast only a few weeks after the project’s official announcement, the Commission declined to recommend the structure on the grounds that it would “destroy” Sixth Street’s historic character, and probably wouldn’t do much to bring in new business anyway.
Backers of the project said one of the reasons a star was chosen is because Texas is the Lone Star State, but that reasoning did not impress [Commissioner Darrell] Glasco. “Armadillos also symbolize Texas,” he said. “Why not put an armadillo down there?”
— Austin American-Statesman, February 24, 1987
Despite the Commission’s disapproval, the group’s star advocates could have brought the project before City Council, but they didn’t bother — instead, its members decided to present a more literally down-to-earth proposal for stars on Sixth Street, this time in the form of star-shaped plaques honoring famous Texans installed in the sidewalk. Since these stars wouldn’t block anyone’s views, the plan for the so-called Texas Walk of Stars passed without controversy, with its first honoree Willie Nelson receiving his star outside the Driskill Hotel later that year.
But a whole lot more stars showed up in 1992, when what was then known as the Texas Walk of Stars Association dedicated 50 of the sidewalk stars for other Texan greats outside the newly-completed Austin Convention Center, which persist to this day along Trinity Street — and though their future is uncertain with plans for expanding the center now on the table, these humble sidewalk stars are the only reminders left of this taller, stranger dream for the transformation of Sixth Street.