The parking lot of the giant Reliant Park complex, which is located 5 miles south of downtown Houston and includes both the famed Astrodome and hulking Reliant Stadium, home of the National Football League’s (NFL’s) Texans, opened at 6 a.m., while it was still dark out. People started lining up soon after outside a large hangar-like conference center next to the two stadiums. And by 8 a.m., with a substantial queue already snaking along the corridors, one of the more peculiar yard sales in American history was underway.
The available merchandise included squares of AstroTurf, bright orange seats, sections of scoreboard, and other objects recently removed from inside the Astrodome, which opened as the world’s first domed stadium, a marvel of engineering muscle and perfect climate control, in 1965. Even the record player and stacks of vinyl once used by the dome’s DJ were up for sale. Larger items, including turnstiles and dugout benches, had been set aside for a live auction later in the day.
Voters in Harris County, which includes Houston, were on that clear November morning just three days away from deciding the fate of Proposition 2, a bond measure seeking to save the Astrodome by raising $217 million to turn the stadium into a multipurpose event space. Houston firm Kirksey Architecture had produced preliminary designs for something called “The New Dome Experience”; renderings showed the seats taken out and the interior of the stadium remade as the setting for skateboard competitions, trade shows, and other gatherings.
Proposition 2 had attracted intense media coverage in Houston, where many voters think of the stadium—which was once home to Major League Baseball’s Astros and the NFL’s Oilers, but has been empty and unused since 2009—in nostalgic terms. “I remember skipping school to be an extra in a Bad News Bears movie being filmed inside the dome,” a woman named Kris Thompson told me as she waited in line to register for the sale. “That was a big deal—my parents never let me out of school!”
The “Astrodome Yard Sale and Live Auction,” as the event was billed, had a faintly macabre feel, as if buyers were picking over a few choice bones of a carcass before it was clear whether the body itself would survive. But for the most part, fans of the Astrodome who’d gathered for the sale were optimistic about the vote. The most recent polling had Proposition 2 leading by a comfortable margin, roughly 55 percent to 45 percent.
Out in the parking lot, a similar good cheer was evident inside a 26-foot-long truck that had been rented by the group Preservation Houston and remade as a “Dome Mobile.” Its exterior was plastered with signs in support of the ballot measure and renderings of “The New Dome Experience.” Inside, visitors were asked to write their memories of the Astrodome on Post-its and stick them on the wall, where they created a collage of postwar Houston sports and pop culture, filled with references to Oilers running back Earl Campbell, Astros pitcher J.R. Richard, and concerts by Selena and Garth Brooks.
Greeting the truck’s visitors was a group of preservation advocates, including Beth Wiedower, a senior field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Trust issues an annual list of America’s “most endangered historic places,” and this year added the Astrodome, alongside the Worldport at JFK Airport and the Gay Head Lighthouse in Aquinnah, Mass., to the list. The Astrodome, the Trust said, was “designed to embody Houston’s innovative, entrepreneurial, and space-age development as a major U.S. city.” But “without a viable reuse plan,” the group warned, “the Astrodome will likely succumb to calls for demolition.”
The Astrodome’s importance, as a piece of both architectural and cultural history, would be hard to overstate. It was designed in the early 1960s as the brainchild of a colorful county judge and former Houston mayor named Roy Hofheinz, who’d helped spearhead the effort to bring a major league baseball franchise to Houston. The team joined the league in 1962 as the Houston Colt .45s, in honor of the famed Texas firearm.
The construction of a new domed stadium for the team was part of Hofheinz’s pitch to major league baseball. While the Astrodome was being built south of downtown, the Colt .45s played in a temporary open-air structure, Colt Stadium, next door to the construction site. For many Houstonians, residents of a place known as “Bayou City,” the experience of sitting outside during summertime games that first season summed up precisely why a dome was necessary: days were sweltering, nights humid and buggy. Along with hot dogs and beer, the concession stands sold fly swatters.
Hofheinz hired the Houston architects Hermon Lloyd and W.B. Morgan, in collaboration with local firm Wilson, Morris, Crain and Anderson, to design the dome. He also consulted with Buckminster Fuller, whose geodesic dome experiments were an inspiration for the shape of the new stadium. The result was a perfectly symmetrical stadium wrapped in slender concrete columns, its exterior daubed with light decoration in the form of a concrete lattice.
It was the mid-1960s, after all; the architects to watch were Edward Durell Stone, Minoru Yamasaki, and William Pereira. The Astrodome incorporated the same late-modern taste for modest ornamentation that they were adding to skylines across the country. The playing field was sunk 30 feet below grade, giving the dome, despite its broad shoulders, a relatively modest silhouette. Inside was the biggest single room in architectural history: a vast column-free space 200 feet high at the apex of the dome and stretching more than 600 feet across.
When the dome was ready, in time for the 1965 season, it was officially named the Astrodome, a nod to Houston’s growing role in the American space program. The Colt .45s became the Astros. The team’s groundskeepers wore astronaut suits. The female ushers were known as “Spacettes.” “Bayou City” was reinventing itself as “Space City,” and the dome was the emblem of the new identity.
The Oilers joined the Astros as dome tenants in 1968. The dome hosted the second “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King in 1973 and the Republican National Convention in 1992, where it was the backdrop for George H.W. Bush’s “thousand points of light” speech.
But what really makes the Astrodome important, and worth saving, is how perfectly and powerfully it sums up a moment, and an attitude, in postwar U.S. culture. There is no other American building that suggests so strongly how ambitious, confident, and blithely ignorant of environmental limits—or limits of any kind, really—this country was in the 1960s. The dome suggested that nature was more nuisance than threat, something that could be kept comfortably and completely at bay. As Douglas Pegues Harvey wrote about the Astrodome in 1990, the simple notion of playing games inside, in a climate-controlled and entirely modern dome, had the profound effect of freeing sports from their “dependency on Nature’s caprice and God’s sky.”
Now, of course, that attitude seems both quaint and horribly naive. These days the architectural symbols of our relationship with the environment suggest a culture full of anxiety about global warming and other threats; there is no sense of trying to dominate nature, only a hope of producing buildings and cities flexible enough to survive its substantial and seemingly growing wrath. Nature’s caprice looks much darker to us now than it did when Harvey wrote that piece in 1990, to say nothing of the attitude in 1965.
The Astrodome—and domed architecture more broadly—stands right at the pivot point of this transition. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, tearing parts of the roof off the Superdome, a 1975 building designed as a bigger and bolder copy of Houston’s stadium, hurricane victims were bussed west to Texas. Hundreds took shelter on cots inside the Astrodome. Roy Hofheinz’s chickens had come home to roost. Pictures of those two domes in the weeks after Katrina put to rest for good the idea that architecture could ever perfectly seal itself off from natural and environmental threats.
For its part, the Astrodome had already lost much of its luster by 2005. Outclassed by new venues, left behind in the 1990s by the idea that baseball should be played in its own custom-designed stadiums, preferably in the center of a city, the dome saw the Oilers move to Nashville and become the Tennessee Titans in 1997. The Astros left for a new ballpark in downtown Houston two years later. When the NFL gave Houston a replacement franchise in 2002, the team built its new home, Reliant Stadium, not just next door to the Astrodome but so close that it seemed to be shoving the older building out of the way. The dome, for so long known as the Eighth Wonder of the World, was not just figuratively but literally overshadowed by its new neighbor.
By early evening on election day, Nov. 5, supporters of Proposition 2 were starting to get nervous. The first returns were coming in, and they suggested voters had soured on the measure. Houston and Harris County are well-known as bastions of free-market economics, where distrust of government runs high; tax raises and bond measures are notoriously difficult to get passed. Astrodome supporters hoped that nostalgia for the stadium and its role in Houston history would outweigh voters’ concerns about debt. But as more votes were counted it became clear that the proposition was doomed. The final tally was 128,616 votes against and 112,087 for, a margin of 53.5 percent to 46.5.
Almost immediately the finger-pointing began. The Proposition 2 campaign had been unfocused and underfunded, some fans of the Astrodome said. It was unclear how a revived Astrodome would support itself over the long haul: Were there really that many skateboard competitions and trade shows waiting to fill its revamped interior? It made little sense, others said, to put the measure to voters on a year without congressional or presidential races on the ballot, when voting would likely be light and skew toward older, more fiscally conservative residents. Turnout on Nov. 5 in Harris County was a paltry 13 percent.
It was possible, though, to spin the election results in a positive direction. Given the vagueness of “The New Dome Experience” plan and the light turnout, getting 47 percent of the vote for a bond measure supporting preservation in Harris County was perhaps something for supporters of the dome to rally around. And, indeed, in the weeks following the vote a fragile conventional wisdom seemed to be emerging that the city and county would find some way to save the Astrodome. Since Harris County owns and operates all of Reliant Park, including the dome, county officials had spearheaded efforts to get Proposition 2 on the ballot. But recently there’s been a push among city officials to get involved.
The Houston Chronicle published an editorial on Nov. 22 praising the city’s Archaeological and Historical Commission for beginning the process of giving the dome landmark status. That wouldn’t be enough to lend the building full protection, but it would put a 90-day delay in place for any planned demolition. In a larger sense, the editorial suggested that the wheels were beginning to turn at City Hall on the dome’s behalf—and that the vote on Proposition 2, even if it hadn’t gone preservationists’ way, might perhaps be a prelude to other efforts to keep the dome standing.
One option—simpler and cheaper than “The New Dome Experience”—is to lobby the Texans and the NFL to help pay to turn the stadium into a kind of glorified anteroom or entry hall, capable of holding fan festivals, public practices, and other events, for Reliant Stadium next door. The Texans will be hosting the Super Bowl in 2017, offering an obvious and attractive deadline to get some minimum restoration work done on the Astrodome.
“The first installment of the Save the Dome drama was a disappointment,” the Chronicle editorial concluded. “We’re hoping for a sequel.”
The decline and potential demise of the Astrodome is a story that reveals a good deal about the ironies and complexities of present-day Houston. A city built on oil and cheap energy is ready to demolish its most famous building, which was always an energy hog, and cart the rubble off to a landfill somewhere. Houston is a churning place of continual reinvention; this is one of the qualities that makes it so fascinating and open to innovation and, at the same, time so ripe for lazy stereotype. (Culturally, it just might be America’s most underrated city.) But it certainly doesn’t make it a place that takes very good care of its monuments, since they undermine Houston’s self-image as a place unburdened by the past.
Still, there is a change happening in Houston, as the city confronts the idea that its most important pieces of architecture have not just local but national significance. Transitions of this kind often require the sacrifice of important structures, though, and the Astrodome, still hanging in the balance, may sadly prove to be the necessary martyr, the East Texas version of New York’s Penn Station or Irving Gill’s Dodge House in L.A., the building whose destruction helps give Houston a new and clear-eyed view of itself.
That’s the final irony here: Authentic preservation movements often can’t gain cultural traction until a really important building is razed. They feed on rubble.