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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Detroit's Lost Moonlight Towers are Austin's Gain

Postcard showing Moonlight Tower (to left) on Woodward Ave. near Adelaide in downtown Detroit.

At first this seemed like another interesting postcard of a long-lost Detroit streetscape. Upon closer inspection, however, there was a remarkable feature. Near the left edge is a latticed tower rising through and beyond the upper edge of the postcard. Until just a few months ago I would have had no idea what that structure was, and write it off as some kind of utility tower or something. It was not until moving to Austin, Texas, a few months back that I became wise to what this tower was and is - the Moonlight Tower.

The large building in the center with tower and slated spire was the Woodward Avenue Baptist Church located at the southeast corner of Winder and Woodward. On the extreme right side of the postcard are the stairs of the Woodward Avenue Congregational Church projecting into the postcard frame. The handsome four story building on the right side of the postcard is the Burnstine Block. All three of these buildings have been demolished. Perhaps the only still surviving building on this postcard is the St. John's Episcopal Church. This church still stands immediately south of Interstate 75 and adjacent to the Comerica Park Major League Baseball stadium.

1897 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map with highlighted area showing view  included in postcard.

The tradition of putting lights atop towers, mostly to serve for enhanced security and public safety, is a tradition that had origins in Europe though which spread to the United States as well. Some even speculate that the Eiffel Tower at one point had lights installed to illuminate the surrounding area. The Jenney Electric Company developed this type of lighting in the early 1880's and by the 1890's had installed moonlight towers in Albany, Detroit, Grand Rapids, Little Rock, and Philadelphia (City of Austin). At one time "Detroit was the only large city in the US (and in the world) lighted wholly and exclusively by the tower system." At the peak of the system there were 122 towers with a height of between 100 and 180 feet lighting over 21 square miles of the city. These towers were first installed in Detroit the 1880's and remained in use until the 1910's. The growth of ever taller buildings spelled the demise for the Moontower system in Detroit and other places. 


In 1894, the City of Austin purchased 31 used Moonlight Towers from Detroit. Some claim that the towers were acquired and installed as a result of the brutal acts of the Servant Girl Annihilator - an unknown serial killer who preyed upon people in the City of Austin between 1884 to 1885. This story doesn't completely jibe though, because the towers were installed ten years after the murders occurred.
Moonlight Tower in Austin, at southeast corner of Guadalupe and West 9th Street (Photo by author).

Moonlight Tower in Austin at northeast corner of Canterbury and Lynn Street (Photo by author).

In 1970 the towers were recognized as State Landmarks. In 1974 the remaining towers were named a City of Austin Historic Landmark. Finally, in 1976 they were listed in the National Register of Historic Places. A comprehensive rehabilitation project was undertaken by the City of Austin in 1993 to restore the towers and their working components at a total cost of $1.3 million. Today Austin is the only city in the world known to still operate moonlight towers. The quality of light is similar to a bright, full moon, hence the popular nickname, moonlight towers. Each moon tower has approximately 12,600-13,200 candle power. At the peak there were 31 Moonlight Towers operating in Austin. Today only 17 of these towers are still standing. 
  • Leland St. and Eastside Dr (NE corner)
  • Monroe St. and S. 1st S (SW corner)
  • West 4th and Nuece (SW corner)
  • West 9th and Guadalupe St (SE corner)
  • W. 12th St. and Blanco St (SE corner)
  • W. 12th St. and Rio Grande St (NW corner)
  • W. 15th St. and San Antonio St (SW corner)
  • W. 22nd St. and Nueces St (SW corner)
  • W. 41st St. and Speedway St (SW corner)
  • Zilker Park (used for Zilker Park Christmas Tree)*
  • Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. and Chicon St (SE corner)
  • E. 13th St. and Coleto St (NE corner)
  • Pennsylvania Ave. and Leona St (NE corner)
  • E. 11th St. and Trinity St (SE corner)
  • E. 11th St. and Lydia St (SW corner)
  • E. Cesar Chavez and Trinity St. (SW corner)
  • Canterbury St. and Lynn St. (NE corner)
Have photos of Moonlight Towers in Austin or in other places? Share it with us on our Facebook page.

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