What's the history behind the bell tower on Cesar Chavez?
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on May 24, 2018. Buford Tower sustained fire damage in April 2021 and underwent repairs before being completed in fall 2023.
At the end of Colorado Street on the north bank of Lady Bird Lake stands a six-story brick tower.
If you stand behind the tower, it looks small against the modern residential and commercial buildings across the street. Stand in front of the tower, and it soars over the running and biking trails that circle the lake.
“I pass it every day on the way to work,” said Shelly Reynolds, a tech recruiter who works at Civitas Learning across the street from the tower. So she asked about it for our ATXplained series.
“I was curious what the deal was with the bell tower that is right on Cesar Chavez, right overlooking Lady Bird Lake,” she said.
The approximately 70-foot tower, officially called the Buford Tower, has stood in downtown Austin since 1930. During the tower’s tenure it has served many purposes – to many people.
A drill tower
In 1916, the City of Austin established its first fleet of paid firefighters. With a legitimate fire department, the city now needed a drill tower to practice firefighting.
“[The city needed] a structure that allowed the firefighters to do a number of things, not only practice fighting fires in the actual structure itself,” said Kim McKnight, the environmental conservation program manager with the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. “But they would also be equipped with different fire hydrants so they could test out hoses and really train new firefighters.”
According to an Austin Statesman article from 1929, a drill tower would also save the city from having to pay a 5 percent penalty on its fire insurance rate. The tower, the city estimated, would cost $5,000.
In the beginning of the 20th century, cities across the world had bought into an urban beautification movement, so even though the tower would be smacked with ladders and set aflame, it had to look good.
“Anything that we’re constructing should be beautiful,” McKnight said. A Statesman article from 1930 promised the tower would be “attractive and really a scenic addition to the site.”
So, the city hired the architecture firm of Hugo Kuehne, which also designed the Ritz Theatre and the Commodore Perry Hotel. (Kuehne was also involved in the writing of Austin's 1928 Master Plan, which notoriously forced black residents into the eastern part of the city.)
According to a history written in the tower’s submission to the National Register of Historic Places, Kuehne and his partner, J. Roy White, gave the tower an Italianate character – featuring stone cornices and red brick.
The interior of the tower was less opulent. The windows had no coverings, since oxygen better fueled the fires lit inside. A photograph from 1937 shows a large crowd forming a U-shape around the tower, watching as firefighters sprayed water into the building from various angles.
But one article from the time suggests these demonstrations were scheduled shows that residents came to observe rather than actual drills.
“The flames, of course, will be synthetic, and so will the smoke, but there will be nothing faked in the way adept firemen will slide down ropes, scale ladders, lay hose and play streams of water on their synthetic blaze,” reads a Statesman article from 1937.
Red flares and smoke bombs created the illusionary fire, and the fire chief promised “a surprise comedy feature” to follow the firefighting demonstration.
The Austin Fire Department used the drill tower until it was decommissioned in 1974.
“By the early 1970s, the tower had become somewhat obsolete,” said McKnight, who added that the tower was too small and couldn’t accommodate modern firefighting tools. The tower was also increasingly in a dangerous location, as the city’s downtown developed. A new drill tower, still in use today, was built on Pleasant Valley Road.
The Buford Tower
Two years before Austin’s first drill tower retired, Austin Fire Department Capt. James Buford drowned in the line of duty.
“He was a very loving dad,” said Gail Klosterhoff, his eldest daughter. Klosterhoff and her younger sister, Karen Buford McCoy, both live in Georgetown.
“I know he delivered a baby one time,” said McCoy, who was just 11 when her father died. “Up until his death, they sent him cards every year on her birthday.”
On June 16, 1972, Buford answered a call of two boys who had been swept into Shoal Creek floodwaters near Spicewood Springs Road. According to newspaper articles from the time, the two high school students were riding a motorcycle to a new park to swim when they were swept off the road by floodwaters.
Buford, who served in the Navy and was described by his daughters in news reports as a strong swimmer, wrapped a rope around his waist as a safety harness. But when he went to secure his rope on a telephone pole, he fell into the rushing waters.
“They don’t know whether he tripped, whether the force of the water swept his feet out from under him or if he stepped in a manhole,” Klosterhoff said. He was pulled downriver.
“We were told he went through a big culvert – a concrete culvert on the side of the road,” she said. “He had a big scrape, an abrasion, on his head and they think when he was swept, he may have hit his head on that concrete.”
Buford was pulled from the water 20 minutes later. He died the next day at Brackenridge Hospital. One of the boys he was trying to save also died.
In December 1974, City Council members voted to rename the defunct drill tower after Buford.
Buford lives on in other ways.
“He didn’t die in vain,” said Jerry Cohen, a firefighter with the Austin Fire Department and the department’s de-facto historian.
Cohen’s version of Buford’s death doesn’t match news reports from the time. He said he heard Buford had secured his rope and that he was sucked down into a manhole; he couldn’t swim out because of the rope around his waist.
Cohen said this version of Buford's death comes up when training new firefighters.
“If he wasn’t tied off there was a very good chance he would have had a chance to get out. But since he tied himself off, he had no chance to get out. He was stuck in there," Cohen said. "To this day we are trained: Never tie yourself off."
Klosterhoff said she has visited the tower named for her father many times.
“I’ve taken my children there,” she said. “I just tell them the story of their grandfather.”
Klosterhoff was 16 years old when her father died.
“Sometimes I’ll see someone, catch a glimpse of someone, that I think resembled what he looked like at that time,” Klosterhoff said. “He wasn’t there to walk me down the aisle, he wasn’t there for the birth of my children. You always miss your parent. You never really get over it.”
A bell tower
In 1978, Effie Kitchens, the wife of the contractor who oversaw the tower’s construction, led a campaign to renovate the tower, according to a history of the tower submitted to the historical registry.
Along with the local chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction, Kitchens helped raise $45,000 to renovate and install electronic chimes in memory of her husband. The bells toll the time during day-time hours and are controlled by a large, electronic cabinet on the second floor of the tower. During the Christmas season, the bells perform carols.
McKnight says some residents love the bells.
“Word got to me that the tower bells were off due to daylight saving time,” she said. “A resident had come to count on them for telling the time.”
Others aren’t as happy about them. The city recently lowered the volume after getting complaints from neighbors in new condos across the street.
A recent trip inside the tower, which is now on the National Register of Historic Places, reveals an interior much less ornate than its exterior. The first five floors are barren concrete. Old holiday lights decorate the windows – now filled with glass. The top floor, reached only by a trap door, is a bedroom-sized birds’ nest; twigs and feces cover the ground.
The windows are nothing but grates to let out the sound of the chimes from eight speakers in the middle of the floor.
“It’s truly a concrete shell,” McKnight said. “It was burned continuously for 40 years. It’s interesting in that it’s so uninteresting on the inside.”