The county commissioner was positively indignant at the way everybody, particularly the news media, kept calling the new county facility by the wrong name. “The county built it and the county paid for it,” he loudly complained to a packed hearing room, “and, dammit, the county owns it!” Growing purplish, the commissioner blustered that “People by God ought to start calling it by its right name: The Harris County Domed Stadium !!”
“Well,” soothed the agreeable Judge, “you can call it whatever you wanta call it.” With the temperate grace of a statesman he smiled amicably, puffed his cigar and added, “But the World is gonna know it as the Astrodome.”
It rises alarmingly out of the flatlands, this enormous implausible igloo, like a misplaced Atlantis. One can easily imagine Billy Graham calling it, as he is said to have called it, “The Eight Wonder of the World,” thus putting it in the same league with the Babylonian Gardens and the Colossus of Rhodes.
What Reverend Billy really said, quoting exactly here, is: “It is in truth one of the wonders of the world”—a description clearly lacking that certain, shall we say, flair. Only after smelting in Judge Hofheinz’ solar imagination did the phrase come to resemble its current, much more compelling self. The Reverend Billy has never once cried foul at this modest revision. Perhaps because his ten-day draw during a 1966 Crusade still holds the attendance record for the Eighth Wonder of the World. He did remark, however, that most Houstonians will likely retire to hell.
In view of the company it keeps—those Gardens, the Colossus and the Pyramids, the Tomb of Mausolus—it seems a little surprising that the Astrodome has only been with us ten years. But that’s indeed the case: the official debut was April 9, 1965, making it a mere upstart as a World Wonder.
In just those ten years, though, the Dome, as the Astrodome is more affectionately known, has had quite a run. It holds the indoor live-gate records for just about every sort of event or affair you’d care to hold indoors, as well as several you probably wouldn’t, and has spawned a whole empire of Astrocolonies—Astroworld, Astrohall, four Astrohotels, the Astros themselves (allegedly a baseball team), and the soon-to-be completed Astroarena. It’s also been U.S. government certified (by the Commerce Department’s Travel Service) as the nation’s third-ranking man-made tourist attraction, just behind the Statue of Liberty and considerably out front of Mount Rushmore and Hoover Dam.
Amidst all the back-patting and record-breaking, it’s been easy to forget that the Dome’s humble raison d’etre is simply to be a stadium, and that it performs that role magnificently. There is, in droll reality, no stadium on the globe that so caters to its patrons, or that offers so varied (not to say bizarre) a selection of spectacles.
Houstonians—or Texans generally, for that matter—have grown quite complacent about the Dome, almost indifferent or, in many cases, actively embarrassed. This also is a mistake, for Astroconsciousness forms far too bulky a portion, good or otherwise, of our cultural baggage to be denied or disregarded. Subtly yet unavoidably, the Astrodome colors one’s perception of Texas and Texans, even our self-perceptions, and it’s long since assumed a place in the gallery of institutions that mark our heritage.
It may be irony, for instance, but it was certainly no accident that the Dome opened on Roy Hofheinz’ birthday, that John Connally threw out the first ball with Lyndon Johnson ensconced in the Presidential Suite, and that the South’s first major-league baseball franchise whipped the New York Yankees that day two-to-one.
“It’s the kind of place a pitcher dreams about going when he dies.” Satchel Paige, Hall of Fame pitcher
The world’s indoor boxing attendance record of 35,460 was set in the Dome on November 14, 1967, when Muhammed Ali decisioned Ernie Terrell in fifteen rounds.
There are 30 seats for blind baseball fans on the mezzanine level, with a radio outlet permitting them to listen to the Astros Radio Network.
“Welcome to the Astrodome,” greets the pert, pretty tourguide. “You are now seated in the world’s largest room.” She pauses for the weight of that statement to sink in, while visitors stare numbly into the cavern looming before them, then at the spurious roof above them.
“How many of you are from Houston?” she asks, and two or three hands go up from the 40-odd available pairs. “How many Texans?” garners a similar showing. For every one of the ten years the Dome has been here, over 400,000 curious pilgrims, most of them outlanders, have paid a dollar each just to see the place. Among other things—many other things—they learn such essential information as:
· The 642-foot clear-span plastic dome is the largest ever built, bridges a gap five times the diameter of Rome’s Pantheon, and could easily accommodate an eighteen-story hotel with room left over for Madison Square Garden.
· There are 45,054 deep-cushion foam “first-class” theater-style chairs, all put in place at a cost of $1 million in “the largest single public seating installation in history.”
· Seats can be added or shuffled to suit the event, yielding 45,000 for baseball, 52,000 for football, 60,000 for boxing, and so forth, a transformation the ground crew can fashion in three hours.
· The Dome is air-conditioned at a constant 72 degrees by four mammoth refrigeration units supplying “approximately the amount of cooling given off by daily melting of enough ice to cover a football field to a depth of nearly five feet.” The air is also filtered to remove haze and smoke as determined by the ultraviolet-ray visibility detector.
· “The most modern sound system ever created for a public building” assures “stereo quality” in a Dome that was acoustically deadened with absorbent fiberboard, acoustical plastic, and 1078 miniscule perforations on the bottom of each seat.
· There are five successive seating tiers in “vivid, zippy colors”—burnt orange, lipstick