Doomed Dome

December 1999By Comments

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 from oil), and unsophisticated. Public schools were segregated; public restrooms were segregated. In the cities the big movie theaters were still downtown, as were the big department stores. Train stations were still active. The leading cultural institution was probably the Houston Symphony. Some good jazz, good blues, and good rock and roll was around, here and there, but as a rule the venues, however authentic, were small and rough. There had been the Depression and World War II, but the core of Texas life and attitudes was the same as it had been for as long as anyone could remember.

Then, in 1961, NASA was awarded to Houston. This was the moment when Texas’ future became both more important than Texas’ past and divergent from Texas’ past. This was not a new extension of ranches or oil. It was literally a new frontier, and Houston embraced it. Houston, which had always called itself the Bayou City, instantly began calling itself Space City, a symbolic transformation from a slow-moving Southern town to an electrified national city. No one outside the state paid much attention, but in Houston the identification with outer space penetrated the consciousness completely and without resistance, and it penetrated every segment of the population. The police department adopted an orbit design as part of its insignia; the underground newspaper, which preached sex, drugs, and rebellion and hated the police, was named Space City. But the single person who saw most deeply into the symbolic possibilities of space was Judge Roy Hofheinz, who in 1962 began digging an immense hole in the ground in what had been an empty swamp on South Main miles from downtown.

Hofheinz was the kind of flamboyant dealmaker, politician, and visionary that once defined what a Texan was, both here and to the rest of the world, but that we don’t seem to breed anymore. He became a lawyer at 19. He was elected to the state legislature at 22. He was elected judge of the Harris County Commissioners’ Court in 1936 at age 24 and retained the title for the rest of his life. He made his fortune in radio and liked to refer to himself as the last of the great hucksters, a word that originally meant someone who created and sold advertising for radio. He owned station KTHT in Houston and was constantly inventing spectacular stunts to promote the station. Near the end of World War II, he passed out scarce nylons to women who called in to request a song. He smoked cigars, had unrefined tastes, and was friendly with everyone in power, including Lyndon Johnson. He managed South Texas during Johnson’s successful campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1948.

In the late fifties he was part of a group of businessmen who wanted to bring major league baseball to Houston. In the fall of 1960 the National League invited the Houston group to come to the league meeting and make their case for an expansion team. The judge arrived with a model of a domed stadium that he said Houston would build for the team. Houston got the franchise.

Hofheinz had conceived the idea of a domed stadium from several sources. He had often relaxed by watching the old minor league Houston Buffaloes in their stadium on the Gulf Freeway. He would eat strawberry snow cones and complain about the heat, the bugs, the rain-outs. His daughter remembers him talking even then about putting a roof over the stadium so that it could be air-conditioned, even though air conditioning was much less prevalent then than it is today. Later, he began to make plans for a shopping center that would be covered—much as they all are today. In Rome he had been fascinated to learn that the Colosseum had a velarium, an awning that slaves could pull over the top of the arena in bad weather. He sought out Buckminster Fuller, the great advocate of the geodesic dome, who convinced the judge that a structure could be built to cover anything. He air-conditioned a room in his house, filled it with plants, and watched with delight when they grew verdant.

It was tricky getting the county bonds to build the Dome passed, but Hofheinz prevailed despite widespread skepticism that the team and the Dome would attract enough spectators to pay off the bonds. And a lot of people thought the roof over the Dome would fall. But in 1962 the new Houston Colt .45’s of the National League began playing in a wooden stadium in what would become the parking lot for the Dome while nearby the first steel skeleton of the Dome began to rise.

Unlike the major buildings that would come later, the Astrodome was built entirely by Texans and specifically by Houstonians. The architects lived and worked in Houston and so did the structural engineers, the air conditioning contractors, the builders, and the physics professor who correctly calculated how high the roof would need to be so that no fly ball could hit it. So were the people who designed and assembled the electronics for the huge scoreboard that sent off fireworks when the home team hit a home run.

The stadium was officially named the Harris County Domed Stadium, but Hofheinz knew that a name like that could never be promoted. Space was what could be promoted. He insisted on calling the stadium the Astrodome, and he changed the name of the team from the (old Texas) Colt .45’s to the (new Texas) Astros. When it opened on April 9, 1965, for an exhibition game between the Yankees and the Astros, the sellout crowd was met with Spacettes in gold uniforms and blue space boots as ushers, with a ground crew called Earthmen in space helmets, and the Blast Off Girls working behind the counter at the Countdown Cafe. When the roof had to be painted so the outfielders could see the ball, the grass died. The judge persuaded Monsanto to cover the field for free with an artificial turf they had developed in exchange for the right to call the stuff AstroTurf.

It all seems quaint now, like the sets of science fiction movie serials from the thirties. And soon enough the Dome lost its luster. Other domes were built, and they were larger. The judge suffered a debilitating stroke in 1970, fell on hard times, and lost control of the Dome by 1975. Without him, the Dome fell into disrepair. Despite later repairs and remodeling, the shabbiness was never quite eradicated. The scoreboard was dismantled to add more seats for football, but eventually the Oilers moved anyway. And Houston’s new downtown stadium will have a retractable roof and real grass and resemble classic ballparks, not the Dome. For years now important commissions in Texas have gone to international architects, not local ones, since the prestige of a famous architect became important in selling the building. We still have the engineering skills, but the sheer nerve it took to build the Dome appears to be gone along with the great hucksters, of whom Roy Hofheinz was the greatest.

In the end, I suppose, the Astrodome was not about the future at all, much as it strained to be. It was the last and greatest creation of the old, isolated, and insular Texas. It had no end of technical skill, no end of bluster, and knew how to have fun, but that was as far as it went. When the Dome is dismantled and carted off, all that will be carted off as well.

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