Buford Tower is situated on the bank of the Colorado River in the heart of downtown Austin, Texas. The tower rises sixty-seven feet in height with a width and depth of fourteen feet. Its original but forgotten name, The Old Fireman’s Practice Tower, provides insight into the tower’s history. For more than forty-three years this building served as a training facility and was routinely burned, flooded with water, and scaled by local firefighters.
Buford Tower was initially constructed in 1931 and was paid for by a fire station bond fund. The architect, Roy White, worked at one of the most prominent firms in Austin owned by Hugo Franz Kuehne. In the early twentieth century Kuehne and his associates designed many prominent public buildings in the Beaux-Arts style. Their work is often cited as influencing the dominant architectural aesthetic, which defines downtown Austin to this day.
The tower features prominent use of red brick in an Italianate style. The ground floor contains three windows and an arched Romanesque door. The windows on the next four floors contain no panes, instead only rounded openings with limestone sills. Consistent with the building’s function, these windows facilitated the flow of oxygen, which accelerated intentionally-set fires. The top floor of the tower features a distinct decorated limestone cornice with an intricate brick bonding beneath. Double-arched limestone windows with decorated columns are present on all four facades, and a second brick bonding pattern completes the top of the tower. The interior consists of concrete floors and a metal staircase reaching the height of the building.
Buford tower was situated in a scenic and sparsely populated area in the city. This location was carefully chosen to sit well above the expected 100-year flood plain of the Colorado River. Yet, only a few years after the tower’s completion, the Great Texas Flood in April 1935 brought record rains to the region, and the river crested only a few feet from the tower base before receding to normal levels.
The fire drill tower remained operational for many decades. However, by 1974 city growth threatened its practical use. The tower stood in the heart of the downtown area on what became a busy thoroughfare. The tower was constructed before mandated easements became customary. Setting fires in the practice tower near a busy street was no longer safe. In 1974 the fire department officially ceded the building to the Department of Parks and Recreation and moved their drills to another facility. Additionally, the structure was renamed Buford Tower after a longtime veteran of the Austin Fire Department, Capt. James L. Buford, who died in the line of duty two years earlier. In an effort to rescue a teen in surging flood waters, Buford was swept away. In his honor, the city renamed the tower for his valiant efforts.
Following the fire department’s departure, the tower quickly fell into a state of disrepair. The open-air windows of the structure facilitated an infestation of pigeons in the upper stories. However, in 1978 a dedicated group of volunteers began efforts to save the tower, with the initial impetus for restoration coming from Effie Kitchens. Her late husband, Rex Kitchens, participated in construction of the original tower in the 1930s. She wished to add a carillon and chimes named in honor of her late husband.
Kitchens pledged $30,000 toward the project and sought community assistance. A fund was set up with a goal of raising an additional $15,000. Further financial assistance came when the Austin Chapter of Women in Construction offered to help with both the campaign and the necessary repairs. The restoration work on the tower was completed in two phases. The first involved cleaning bricks on the tower. The second phase of the project involved the addition of a new roof and paned windows to cover the first through fifth floors. Wayne Bell, an Austin architect who worked with the original designer Roy White, designed ornamental grillwork and mesh on the uppermost windows to keep out pigeons. Bell ensured the new grillwork had an Italianate flavor and blended with the existing building aesthetic. An ornamental metal gate was affixed to the recessed front entrance. Buford Tower remains an innovative example of adaptive reuse in downtown Austin.