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.
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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Adam Chandler is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers global news.

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