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Local artisan crafts crown for UT tower and readies observation deck for visitors

No one can apply just the right finishing touch like Austin architect and artisan Lars Stanley.

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AUSTIN, Texas—No one can apply just the right finishing touch like Austin architect and artisan Lars Stanley.

From the ornamental wrought-iron gates at Zilker Botanical Gardens to the simple hand-forged handrailings at the new Austin Bergstrom International Airport to a pair of door handles for a client’s home — Stanley knows the meaning of architectural detail.

That’s why he was selected to craft a protective crown for the Tower’s observation deck at The University of Texas at Austin. The grand reopening of the observation deck, which has been closed for almost 25 years, is scheduled for Sept. 15 with public tours beginning the following day. Stanley’s stainless steel lattice curtain arches over the observation deck but still provides an almost unobstructed view of the city.

“The Tower is an icon in Austin so I knew how important the job was,” said Stanley, who received an architectural degree from Texas A&M University, but later studied under world-renowned UT architect Charles Moore. Stanley said stainless steel was chosen for its strength, and the lattice effect was proposed because he and UT administrators didn’t want people to feel enclosed. To avoid staining or damaging the Tower’s historic limestone, he installed brackets that attach the lattice to the building at existing masonry joints.

Stanley grew up in El Paso, where his father is an architect and his mother an artist. “My father would take me out on jobs and point out the importance of craftsmanship. That’s when I first began appreciating the art of the craft, as it relates to architecture and building. Later, after he had received his degree, Stanley even apprenticed with a carpenter, cabinetmaker and a sheet metalworker “to better understand materials and the process of using them.”

He also studied under the late Alex Weygers, a California sculptor and blacksmithing guru, who taught him to forge his own tools from old car parts and scrap metal. “Blacksmithing is an ancient tradition that is becoming reborn in the artistic world,” Stanley said. “I fell in love with it because there is that connection to the past and to the present.”

This expertise — a mixture of architecture and artistry — is what has made Stanley so well known across the country. His hand-forged metalwork ranges from large architectural commissions (gates, doors, railings, stairways and gazebos) to smaller architectural details (door pulls and hardware, andirons, fireplace tools, furniture and lighting). His clients include not only the city of Austin, the National Wildflower Research Center and the state of Texas, but also actor Richard Gere and director Steven Spielberg.

Sometimes, Stanley works in collaboration with other artisans, as in the case of the Zilker Botanical Gardens project. He and Louis Herrera crafted massive wrought-iron entrance gates depicting a variety of native plants from Spanish oaks to yucca to native grasses.

For the Tower observation deck job, Stanley worked closely with University officials, especially Assistant Vice President Steve Kraal. “You get a view of Austin you cannot get from any other place,” said Kraal, who oversaw the renovation project. “The Tower is just too valuable not to be open to the public.”

Lawrence Speck, dean of the UT School of Architecture, said Stanley was the perfect choice to build the protective lattice. “Lars could design, manufacture and install it — making it one-stop shopping for the University,” he said. “We knew Lars would be sensitive to the design of the building, while making something durable and safe. Now, we’re ready to recapture and reappreciate the wonderful heritage we have (in the Tower).”

The UT Tower stands 307 feet tall and was built in 1937. At the urging of University students, UT administrators last fall began exploring the possibilities of reopening the observation deck. The lattice project cost the University $200,000. An additional $400,000 was spent on the installation of an elevator to accommodate disabled visitors.

The observation deck tours will be run out of the Texas Student Union. There will be a $3 charge. For information on tours, please call (512) 475-6633.

Note to editors: For photographs of Lars Stanley and the UT Tower, please call Marsha Miller at (512) 471-6412 or download the photos from the photos link above, left.