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Austin’s tallest building finally lights up its much-maligned ‘crown’

The crown of the so-called "Jenga building" will soon get a new, digitally controlled LED lighting system with a "full spectrum" of colors.

Editor's note: The story originally appeared on CultureMap Austin. Feb. 7, 2020, is expected to be the first night the crown lights up.

CULTUREMAP AUSTIN – The much-maligned “crown” of Austin’s tallest building is about to get lit. The Independent, a 59-story high-rise known as the "Jenga building," will soon flip the switch on a digitally controlled LED lighting system similar to the new lighting setup at New York City’s iconic Empire State Building.

The Independent, a condo building at 301 West Ave., opened in the summer of 2019, but its cage-like crown thus far has been dark at night. In the coming weeks, the building's crown will be bathed after sundown in what the tower’s architect calls a “full spectrum” of colors.

“The plan for The Independent from inception called for lighting of the crown,"  Ryan Fetgatter, project developer of the Independent, tells CultureMap. "We’re working on the few final, finishing touches now. It will soon likely be one of the most noticeable additions from the public’s view of the tower.”

From an aesthetic perspective, the public’s view of the top of the so-called “Jenga building” hasn’t been universally favorable. In 2019, Austin resident Ben Anstead launched a campaign — complete with a website, social media accounts, and a Change.org petition — urging the developers and architects to “correct their mistake” and “fix” the building’s crown.

“What was highly anticipated as the crowning achievement of the Austin skyline has become an embarrassing scar on an otherwise well-executed project,” the FixtheCrown.org website complains.

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Anstead, a software sales executive in Austin, says he’s pleased to hear The Independent’s crown will be illuminated, as it’ll “make a huge difference” in how the building appears at night.

“Austin’s nighttime skyline needs a little pop, so it will be exciting to see, and hopefully it works out well,” Anstead tells CultureMap. “It’s a step in the right direction, and I’m trying to think of it as a glass half full.”

Nonetheless, Anstead maintains the crown will still look “painfully unfinished” during daylight hours.

On Reddit, naysayers disparage the crown as looking like “ugly scaffolding,” a “pig pen,” and a “chicken coop,” among other unflattering descriptions. The crown actually consists of “a box of glimmering steel mesh hanging over a 50,000-gallon water tank at the top that prevents the building from swaying in the wind,” according to the Austin Business Journal.

In an unscientific poll conducted last year by the Austin Business Journal, 66 percent of website visitors who responded thought the top of The Independent should be changed, while 17 percent indicated it’s fine as it is and 17 percent didn’t care one way or the other. The crown has been visible since May 2018.

Rising 685 feet, The Independent ranks as the tallest building in Austin, with another downtown condo tower, The Austonian, in second place at 683 feet.

Among the other high-rises gracing the Austin skyline, the 452-foot-tall Fairmont Austin, at 101 Red River St., features a lighted crown that surrounds and illuminates the hotel’s 170-foot-high architectural spire. Including the spire, the hotel measures 590 feet in height.

The pyramid-shaped crown of the 515-foot-tall Frost Bank Tower, at 401 Congress Ave., is lit at night as well. It’s worth noting that this crown faced harsh architectural critiques after the skyscraper debuted in 2004, with the late Austin American-Statesman columnist John Kelso comparing it to a giant set of nose hair trimmers.

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