The Sad Fate (but Historic Legacy) of the Houston Astrodome

Though now likely doomed for demolition, when the Astrodome first opened in 1965, it was a profoundly American invention that set the bar for arenas around the world.
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AP / Pat Sullivan

The life of the world’s first domed stadium began with a bang—an ineffably Texan bang. On a warm January morning in 1962, seven men, sporting cowboy hats and eschewing shovels, broke ground on what would become the Houston Astrodome, home of the Houston Astros and the Houston Oilers, by firing Colt .45 revolvers into the dirt.

When the Dome was inaugurated three years later, it held the world’s largest room and, in the spirit of Texas truisms, was twice the size of any enclosure ever built before it. By its first birthday in 1966, the Astrodome was the country’s third-most-popular manmade tourist attraction, behind only the Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Rushmore. For years after its birth and with great hubris, the Dome was heralded as “The Eighth Wonder of the World.”

This week, Houstonians cast their ballots on a referendum to determine the stadium’s future. Had the measure for a $217 million taxpayer-funded renovation passed, the world’s first domed stadium would have been refashioned into something of a convention center, hawked somewhat deliriously as “The New Dome Experience.” While the proposal did not garner any organized opposition, the measure narrowly failed. The Astrodome now appears likely to buckle under the weight of the calls to demolish it. As debate about the issue grew over the past few months, the discourse was not just limited to whether the Astrodome should stand, but also what the building has stood for as a national icon.

Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who spent 10 of his seasons playing for the Houston Oilers in the Astrodome, was torn ahead of the vote. “I’m sure economics have a lot to do with it,” Moon said. “But the historical importance of it is something you want to take a look at too, no question about it. The question is, ‘With Reliant Stadium sitting right next door, what do you keep it for?’” 

***

In between opening night and this week’s vote, the Dome hosted everything from baseball, bullfights, and professional football to a fabled college basketball game between UCLA and the University of Houston, the first game of its kind to be seen on national television. Elvis, Evel Knievel, Muhammad Ali, and Billy Graham all performed to their faithful. In 1973, the world tuned into to watch the legendary Battle of Sexes tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King.

The Supremes were the first act to perform in the Astrodome when they, tellingly enough, opened for Judy Garland before a sold-out crowd. The Dome contained an entire Robert Altman film and not nearly enough displaced citizens of New Orleans, tens of thousands of whom called the Dome home after Hurricane Katrina. By then, all of the Astrodome’s teams had moved out.

“When you’re in the present, you cannot judge what will become a wonder of the world,” astrophysicist and chief dome-dweller at the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson told me. “That’s to be judged by generations that follow. Here we are, ready to level the Astrodome, and the Pyramids are still standing.”

The Dome was an American innovation. Largely credited as the vision of the late Roy Hofheinz (immortalized locally as “The Judge”), a former Houston mayor, campaign advisor to Lyndon Johnson in the 1940s, and the father of professional baseball in Houston, the Astrodome was the world’s first model for domed stadiums. It inspired countless knock-offs, built everywhere from Seattle to Osaka and from New Orleans to New Zealand. Upon opening, it sported a sophisticated air-conditioning system, luxury boxes, and a $2 million scoreboard that was four stories high and had programmable animation—all features never before seen in a stadium. The complex also launched a professional sports team (the Houston Astros), a signature terrain (AstroTurf), and a landmark theme park (AstroWorld).

The Astrodome was nicknamed the “Can-Do Cathedral,” and for good reason: Not only would it be completed six months early, but when problems emerged, solutions were quick in coming. When the project initially went over budget, Hofheinz secured extra funding by promising local black leaders that the venue would be fully integrated. When glare from the ceiling’s Lucite panels interfered with outfielders tracking down flyballs, the windows were painted. When the paint killed the Bermuda grass, the solution was to create AstroTurf, a surface that was cleaned during games by groundskeepers called Earthmen, who dressed in space costumes and wielded vacuum cleaners.

These were classic flourishes from Hofheinz, a Barnum-esque huckster who would eventually buy and sell the Ringling Brothers himself and also maintained a residence within the Astrodome.

“I got a chance to tour his residence inside the Astrodome,” Warren Moon recalls. “It was kind of fascinating, but at the same time, kind of eerie. The Judge was just living inside a stadium, especially at night when it was dark and there’s no telling what running through there as a far as critters.”

On opening night, an exhibition baseball game between the Houston Astros and the New York Yankees, 21 astronauts threw out 21 first pitches, and the crowd honored the Gemini Twins—Gus Grissom and John Young—who weeks earlier had become the first American pair in space. That night, the two dropped by to chat with President Johnson and Governor John Connally in the custom presidential suite, fashioned by Hofheinz for the state’s favorite son and decorated with Louis XIV’s furniture.

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Earlier this year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the Astrodome on its annual list of 11 most endangered historic places in America. Deteriorated into disuse and shuttered since 2009, there was a growing sense that the Astrodome might finally meet with the wrecking ball and become coveted parking space for the the stadium next door. When Reliant Stadium—the Astrodome’s bigger, shinier, retractable-roofed neighbor—was awarded hosting duties for the 2017 Super Bowl back in May, the issue grew much more urgent.

But the fact that American stadiums, no matter how storied, rise and fall is as generally accepted among sports fans as peanut shells and foam-heavy beer. Even the original Yankee Stadium, built four decades before the Astrodome, faced little opposition when it was knocked down in 2010 and the Bronx Bombers moved next door.

Preservation, like most acts of restraint, is not a particularly cherished American ideal. Young countries like to topple things over and build them back better; the history is inherently less valuable. It seems particularly remarkable that an objectively ugly, 48-year-old building that Larry McMurtry once described as “the working end of the world’s largest deodorant stick” ended up on a preservation list that also included the San José Church in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the Gay Head Lighthouse in Martha’s Vineyard, and the James River in Virginia.

But to many in Texas and elsewhere, the Astrodome means to Houston what a 16th-century Spanish church means to Puerto Rico, what the first lighthouse means to Martha’s Vineyard, and what the James River, upon which Jamestown, the very first permanent English settlement in America, means to Virginia. James Glassman, a Houston-based civic historian, was among the most vocal advocates for the preservation of the Astrodome, which he sees as central to the identity and the history of the city as well as responsible for much of the city’s ensuing development.

“Houston’s skyline wouldn’t look like it does if we didn’t have the Astrodome first,” Glassman said. “Our world-class medical center wouldn’t look like it does if we didn’t have the Astrodome first. That gave us so much self-confidence that we could build and dream big and that we could also be sort of weird and tinkerers. The Astrodome was such an odd idea—an indoor sports stadium—and now it seems natural. It’s such a simple design.”

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When the county announced it would accept private proposals for the re-imagining of the stadium in the spring of this year, Glassman contributed his expertise to a plan that would strip the Astrodome away to its skeletal core and create a park underneath it. Another plan submitted involved the construction of a planetarium that would offer visitors a 3-D orbit through space. Ultimately, the county disqualified all the other proposals—roughly 20 in all—and went with its convention-center plan, a redesign so strikingly anodyne and banal that it sparked public debate about whether the idea was conservative because it was courting success or because it was courting failure.

Former Houston Mayor Fred Hofheinz, son of Roy Hofheinz, had a particularly strong investment in the process. Hofheinz was in favor of the convention-center idea: “Saving the Astrodome from demolition has been a subject in Houston for the last five years,” Hofheinz said. “We’ve been through many iterations of solutions for that. The one on the ballot was the best of those.”

Glassman, who supported the initiative, conceded that no proposal for the Astrodome had captivated public imagination like “putting a man on the moon” had. But, in many ways, this sentiment seemed to embody why the proposal was doomed to fail. It was built across town from NASA while the agency's Apollo program was catalyzing early 1960s American moonlust. Born of the same quixotic vision and Texas-sized arrogance, the Astrodome resembled something of a moon colony itself: Protected from the brutal Texas elements by the world’s most sophisticated air conditioning system, the floor was buried 24 feet underground and the building’s roof was designed to withstand hurricane-strength gusts. The Astrodome was iconic not only because it was a landmark structure, but because it was also an unconventional, imaginative project created in an era of grand ambition. There’s nothing unconventional about a convention center.

While demolition of the Astrodome is not absolutely guaranteed, the fate of the building now rests with the county commissioners’ court following Tuesday’s vote.

Regardless of its future, though, the next generations in Texas seem destined to hear plenty about the Astrodome. The younger Hofheinz, for one, still fondly recalls the Dome’s opening night. “When Mickey Mantle hit the first home run and that famous scoreboard, which was the first of its kind, exploded,” Hofheinz said. “Everybody went crazy. It was a wonderful experience. History will remember.”

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