One of the first things I did after moving to Houston in 2011 was ask somebody in local government what, like, the deal was with the Astrodome, which is just sitting there right off the South Loop in Houston, slowly being reclaimed by the earth.
“Why is it still here?” I asked the guy.
“It’s still here,” he said, “because we haven’t figured out what to do with it.”
And that’s the long and short of it, as far as the Astrodome is concerned. The way it was explained to me that day, it costs Harris County about $2 million per year to just sort of look after the Astrodome as it decays, and it would cost at least $60 million to tear it down. As it happens, Harris County doesn’t have $60 million laying around, so there it sits.
I wouldn’t describe the Astrodome as an eyesore, but it looks every bit its age (52), and sitting next to the glassy NRG Stadium as it does, it looks something like a rusty tuna can. Seeing the Georgia Dome, which was constructed in 1992, turned to dust today was a reminder of just how old the Astrodome is, and how strange it is that it’s still standing.
But even when it was known as the “Eight Wonder of the World” nobody ever really described the Astrodome as “beautiful.’ At least not in a conventional sense. But what it was, was a perfectly ostentatious representation of a time and place — Houston in the Space Age, conceived and built by a larger-than-life Texan named Roy “The Judge” Hoffheinz.
It was the era that gave birth to the phrase, “If they can put a man on the moon …”
If they can put a man on the moon, we can build an indoor stadium with natural grass.
If they can put a man on the moon, why couldn’t we air condition an entire domed stadium?
OK, so the natural grass thing didn’t quite work out, but if they can put a man on the moon, surely we can make some plastic grass.
A few years ago, during one of the many big pushes to do something about the dome, they let a bunch of us in the media take a tour. It was spooky in there. On the one hand, it looked utterly tattered and abandoned, and on the other, there was still a box of laundry detergent in the baseball locker room, still some white-board writings from the set of the Friday Night Lights movie that was filmed there.
That was one of the last things that ever happened in the Astrodome. After it was used to house Hurricane Katrina refugees, the city came along and deemed it unsafe. We all had to sign releases as we walked in, and as you walked around you could see where pieces of concrete and duct work had just … fallen off. When we went up to the press box, and old Houston radio guy told me about how back in the day he and some others used to go back into the photographer’s dark room to smoke a joint during the seventh-inning stretch.
“It was the 70s,” he explained.
I called an old architect in Kansas City about this — the Astrodome, that is. He was at the end of a long and prestigious career, having made his name designing sports stadiums.
“I don’t remember it winning any awards,” he deadpanned.
In much the same way as a Cadillac with some longhorns on the grille, the Astrodome is more whimsical than it is beautiful. When it opened it had any number of quirks and oddities. My favorite is that The Judge had a luxury apartment built into the dome, with a dumbwaiter that ran all the way to the bottom floor, so he could send for a steak at any hour. Some said if you were there at night when the whole place was dark, and you looked up, you’d see way up near the top the orange-burning ember of The Judge’s cigar. There was a bar up there too, and The Judge had it rigged up with magnets, so when the bartender would slide your stein of beer over to you, he could push a button and have it stop right in front of you like magic. Curtains were hung over windows that weren’t there. That sort of stuff.
“The Judge had a twisted sense of humor,” said Chuck Pool, the sports information director at Rice, and an Astrodome historian.
It is strange to feel nostalgic for a time you never experienced for yourself. But there are a lot of things that were made in the 1960s that have that effect on me, and if you’re like that I’m certain the Astrodome would do it for you, too. It was used by the Astros all the way up to 1999, and it got some upgrades along the way, but there is no forgetting you’re in a 60s ballpark when you’re in the Astrodome. It was the first ballpark of its kind — a multi-sport dome with artificial turf — and it ushered in an era of truly terrible, dark, gray and soulless sports stadiums that reflected the malaise of the 1970s with as much accuracy as the bloated, junky American cars did. I’m talking about places like Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.
People hated these stadiums. The artificial turf was bad enough, but there was no charm or intimacy to these places, no sense of place. They were the Astrodome without the Judge’s weird taste, but the Astrodome is thought of as being responsible for that nonetheless.
It is altogether not much of a legacy, but the Astrodome is the most famous piece of architecture in Houston, and natives have a bond with it. It represents the time when Houston was put on the map as a modern metropolis instead of just a greasy oil town. The NFL came in 1960, NASA came in ’61, Major League Baseball came in ’64, and from 1950 to 1970 the city more than doubled in population.
Across the street from the Astrodome was AstroWorld, an amusement park. It was open from 1968-2005. A lot of Houstonians had their first kisses at AstroWorld, a local writer explained.
And so every couple of years down here, there will be a big push from some group or another to do something about the Astrodome. Because you can’t just leave it sitting there, can you?
The trouble is, giant domed stadiums are pretty good for hosting major sporting events, and not much good for anything else. There has never been a successful re-purposing of a building like the Astrodome, and nobody has yet come up with anything I’d describe as a winning idea.
Three years ago a feasibility study was commissioned, and the recommendation that came back was for the dome be converted into a place that would house indoor carnival rides and perhaps play host to events like high school football games. That was going to cost more than $200 million. Like a lot of Astrodome ideas, that one sounds like it could work, and might even be kinda cool, but … why do that when you can just put the carnival rides and high school football games someplace that doesn’t need a $200 million renovation? It’s not as though Houston lacks facilities — if there’s one thing this city has, it’s space.
And it’s that “but why tho” stage of the process where these plans always fall apart. The sentimental car guy in me would love to see the county restore the Astrodome like an old Ford Galaxie, and convince the Astros to move back in there for the raddest environment in all of baseball.
But it’s a boyish, Gatsby-ish fantasy. You can’t relive the past. The Space Age is over, the Galaxie is dead, and you only get one first kiss.