SEVERAL DAYS AFTER THE ASTROS LOST TO THE Braves in the last game at the Astrodome, I walked through a gap in the right field fence onto the field. I was making one last visit. The AstroTurf squished beneath my shoes as if I was walking on stiff bristles, which I guess I was. I stopped at second base and looked up 208 feet, to the highest point of the roof. The expanse of the dome is still most impressive, even dizzying, from there. But as I walked on, I glanced around. The place looked the way its builders would never have believed it could look—empty and forlorn. The small group of tourists sitting behind home plate and listening to a tour guide made it seem more empty rather than less. And empty it will remain. This spring the Astros will move into a new stadium downtown. The Oilers are long gone, and Houston’s new football team will play somewhere else. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the Offshore Technology Conference are staying with the Astrodome for the moment, but without more clients like them, the Dome is doomed. Even now, no one knows exactly what to do with it. It may limp along as a host to conventions, but it’s a white elephant now, a white elephant badly in need of paint, repair, and remodeling at a cost no one wants to pay. Talk has turned to tearing it down eventually. Here, at the end of the century, the curtain is closing on the Astrodome, on the building that just 35 years ago was the very embodiment of the hope, the promise, the splendor, and the total Texasness of the future.
Today Texas is the second-most-populous state after California, with more than 20 million people, and Houston is the fourth-largest city in the United States, with 1,750,000. But in 1960, around the time of the conception of the Astrodome, Texas and Houston were both still more like they had been forty years earlier, in 1920. Texas had only 9.5 million people and Houston had less than 1 million. Lyndon Johnson was elected vice president that year, and Sam Rayburn ran the House of Representatives, but Texans remained inwardly focused, poor (despite individual wealth