- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Sunshine sparkled through the three revived fountains. A forgiving wind blew through the jagged overhangs that define the octagonal structure that sits behind a kidney-shaped pond.
Lovers of the Fannie Davis Gazebo couldn’t have picked a better day to rededicate the 1970 edifice, the first structure built on Lady Bird Lake after the Longhorn Dam was completed.
On Oct. 27, the original builders — and those who protected it through the years — gathered just south of the pool to recount the story of the modernist gazebo, which on several occasions faced removal or radical redesign. Every time, the mighty force that conceived and built it — the Austin chapter of Women in Construction — intervened.
You don’t want to mess with this group.
“We came out of the woodwork and raised our voices,” said Pat Turner, longtime gazebo watchdog after a recent effort to cover the pond and repurpose the gazebo. “You are not going to alter the integrity of this structure.”
Recently, the city of Austin spent $137,000 to improve the pond, fix some structural elements, update some electrical wiring and repaint the gazebo to match its original color palette.
Along with Turner, among those present for the ceremony were Lori Nill, who was chapter president at the time it was constructed and whose husband, architect John Sterry Nill, designed it; Ken Wendler of Anken Construction who oversaw the building of the gazebo; and Doris Ahr, an electrical contractor and early member of the women’s group.
Some readers might ask: Where exactly on Lady Bird Lake is this gazebo? People driving across the nearby First Street Drake Bridge often miss it altogether. Joggers, boaters and festival-goers at Auditorium Shores might notice the space-age tower without having a clue about its origin or uses.
Built for $6,000 with a lot of contributed labor and materials, it is sometimes compared to a spaceship. Or a lady’s Sunday hat — designed by a surrealist. Or maybe a giant, overturned morning glory.
Clearly, the cousin of this concrete shell gazebo, more complex and uplifting on the inside than on the outside, is the inverted lotus located at a motel on U.S. 290 near Interstate 35.
It echoes not only the original Palmer Auditorium — now the Long Center — but also the large domes and wave-shapes of Southern California’s Googie-style architecture, observes parks cultural specialist Kim McKnight.
Although Lady Bird Johnson endorsed the project, she was not involved in the design, fund-raising or planning, say those who witnessed the campaign to build it. Along with Johnson, legendary parks leader Beverly Sheffield enthusiastically backed the gazebo from its inception in 1965 as the centerpiece of the evolving hike-and-bike trail around the lake.
During the original dedication, a posterity box was placed behind a granite marker. When it is opened as scheduled in 2070, Austinites who are presumably kids today will find a Barbie doll, a Kennedy half dollar and a list of all the first contributors.
Like any other structure open to the elements, the gazebo has required periodic maintenance.
When it was renovated in 1985, it was renamed for the charter member of Women in Construction’s Austin chapter, Fannie Davis, who passed away in 1997. To raise money for that project, members sold black-and-white airbrush posters of the gazebo by artist Lynne Hough. Former Mayor Carole Keeton Strayhorn helped spearhead the efforts, and she returned to the scene for the rededication ceremony last week.
In 1990, the group needed more money for repairs, so they set up the first Gazebo Run, which raised cash for the next few years. In 1992, an acrylic bubble was added to the top to keep rain off the structural beams, which were beginning to deteriorate. In 1995, for the gazebo’s 25th anniversary, the women funded and built today’s handicap-accessible ramp.
At the ceremony, Wendler, who oversaw the construction 42 years ago, made an easily missed connection: Beautification projects like this bring people to the trail for exercise which in turn improves their health.
“If I hadn’t been walking and jogging all these years, I wouldn’t be alive,” he said.
Given its prominent placement, the difficulties the backers encountered just keeping the gazebo upright and in shape seem a bit surprising.
“It feels like I’ve been carrying the torch forever,” Turner says. “We want to make it to 50 years so hopefully the historical folks will pick up the torch, too. It’s an Austin icon.”