Another Day, Another Proposal to Save the Astrodome
“What to do with the Astrodome” has been a favorite parlor game of Houstonians since 1999, when the Astros played their last game under the dome before moving to their new confines downtown.
Proposals for the iconic structure have ranged from the serious—transforming it into a hotel, convention center, or soundstage—to the fanciful—making it into the world’s largest aviary, or the new state capitol, or filling it with water and staging mock naval battles. (Note: no article about the fate of the Astrodome has failed to call it “iconic,” so I’m getting it out the way early.)
And last week, just ahead of the building’s fiftieth birthday, the Washington, D.C.-based Urban Land Institute released the latest scheme, possibly the Dome’s last shot at salvation. Some highlights from that proposal include a historical museum, a 1,500-car parking garage under the Dome, a park on the first floor, and a live-oak lined promenade outside. The reimagined structure could host community festivals, farmers’ markets, movie nights. It would be a place for Texan fans and rodeo fans to extend their respective “gameday” experiences. It would host more industry conferences in a city full of them.
Total estimated price tag for the monumental redo? It runs $242,445,692, to be raised from some combination of federal, state, county, and city taxes; tax increment reinvestment zones; historic tax credits; philanthropy; and possibly local medical facilities and universities. That’s about $25 million more than a plan rejected by a 53 percent majority of the 18 percent of Harris County voters who bothered to show up at the polls for an off-year election in 2013.
If you’re curious to know what it looks like, the ULI also released some sketches and renderings of the envisioned Dome Redux, which could be completed by 2025, by which time the absolute youngest people to have clear memories of the inside of the place in its heydey will be in their thirties.
And there are many, many thousands of Houstonians with special memories of the place, such as Mike Scott’s pennant-clinching no-hitter in 1986. Earl Campbell’s four-TD Monday Night Football showcase that put Luv Ya Blue on the map. Elvis at the rodeo. Pink Floyd blowing minds. Muhammad Ali banging heads. Evel Knievel jumping over stuff. The Game of the Century. The Battle of the Sexes. Vendors hawking “the coldest foam in the Dome.” And on and on and on.
I have my own such memories. In my early teens I would go hours early to Astros games and cadge autographs and snag batting practice foul balls. My breath would always catch a little when I would emerge from the concourse into that vast space-age cathedral under heavens of illuminated glass and steel. I saw demolition derbies there with my dad in the seventies, Willie in the eighties. I was there when King George brought its life as a concert venue to an end, in 2003, and when Vince Young came this close to leading his Madison Marlins over the heavily favored Katy Tigers. I also witnessed those surreal days in 2005 when it seemed as if all of New Orleans had moved to the grounds.
And for a long time I was as ardent a Dome preservationist as any. But with each passing year, I’ve lost more and more of that resolve. The Dome will never be what it once was, what it was designed for. Restoring it to its raison d’etre is not on the table. New York demolished Yankee Stadium. London tore down Wembley, Boston its Garden, Irving its Texas Stadium. And as ULI’s plans make plain, the Dome’s Dome-ness will be watered down, a process that was ongoing for decades before the place even closed.
And, oh, what a testament to the Old Weird Houston it used to be, back when Judge Roy Hofheinz lived in that garish apartment within its confines, or when the scoreboard exploded with raging bulls and pistol-shooting buckaroos with every (exceedingly rare) Astros home run. There was the ring of themed luxury skybox suites high above the field. The five or six sit-down restaurants, including the luxe Japanese steakhouse for the ritzy set on the skybox level and the proletarian beer-and-wurst smorgasbord that was the Domeskeller, tucked under the center field bleachers at field level.
For a brief shining moment in the fullness of time, the Dome was the ultimate in humankind’s victory over challenges once believed insurmountable. Houston, the city that put a man on the moon, was also the city that conquered its Congo-like summer sun, its incessant Gulf Coast squalls, and perhaps most miraculously of all in this subtropical swamp, foiled the pesky mosquito.
Not for nothing was it called the Eighth Wonder of the World, reigning in Space Age majesty over its surrounding Astrodomain. For a time.
And then bigger and fancier Wonders of the World started popping up everywhere, from New Orleans to Detroit, Seattle to Minneapolis, all with carpets made of knee-shredding Astroturf, the fake grass necessitated by the glare of outfield lights in such structures. And by the mid-eighties, fixed-roof domes were passé at best, loathed at worst. By the nineties, retractable roofs were the new thing, along with natural grass; by 2002, the Astros and Texans were playing in such stadia, one downtown and the other casting a bullying shadow over the once-mighty Dome it rendered obsolete.
Markers of the Dome’s loosening grip on the city’s imagination began long before the team moved though. The Astros quietly removed the Dome from their shoulder patches in 1994, around the same time realtors started phasing out “the Astrodome area” in marketing their properties, most opting for “Med Center area.” Few continued refering to Houston as Space City.
As remembered by Rice architectural historian Stephen Fox, his earlier counterpart Peter Papademetriou pronounced the Astrodomain as much an enshrinement of late twentieth-century American values as the Vatican celebrated those of Renaissance Rome. It’s hard to argue with that, just as it’s hard to argue with the idea that the Dome’s successor, NRG Park, celebrates the values of modern-day Houston just as strenuously.
Let’s look at the area then and now. First, it’s good to remind everyone that the area was never beautiful. In truth, old Astrodomain—which also included Astroworld across the freeway and the Astrovillage quartet of Hofheinz-owned hotels, one boasting what was once the world’s most expensive suite—was brash and garish and more than a little crass. In 1974, Vicky Attalia, a visiting Italian critic, opined in apparently awed tones that “the whole thing far surpasses all current definitions of kitsch, obscenity, and bad taste.”
Astrodomain-adjacent stretches of South Main joined in that spirit. My earliest memories of that stretch of road are of sleazy whiskey and trombone nightclubs, swank Mad Men–era motels, restaurants like Gaido’s and Valian’s and Christie’s and Cap’n Benny’s, which were all either themed, sporting a giant aquatic animal in the parking lot, or shaped like boats, or some combo thereof.
Thanks to all the cheap beer sold in the Dome, parking lot brawls were common occurrences; streetwalkers trolling for customers amid the postgame traffic jams were regular sights. A nearby dive called the Blue Fox Lounge featured a mix of sex, violence, and depravity so heady, Hunter S. Thompson briefly consided setting a novel there and on South Main.
So, crass and kitschy and obscene and even dangerous. Yes, all those things—and also thrilling and fun.
But now the area is rebranded at the whims of corporate America. Every so often my teenaged daughter calls today’s NRG iteration “Nurg Park,” which in its boringness is a bit more apt. Where it is not afflicted with the seemingly unstoppable southward creep of clinics and supply houses catering to the nearby Texas Medical Center, today’s NRG-adjacent South Main is an all-but-unbroken procession of chain restaurants, drugstores, and big-box retail. There’s a Sonic and a Target atop what was once the Roadrunner Inn; the lovely Palm Court Motel, where Elvis once laid his pomp, is paved under and gone. Kiddie Wonderland, a miniature amusement park of the cheapo twenties-style, featuring doddering old ponies and ancient and rickety rides, made way for a CVS. AstroWorld is an empty field. Hofheinz’s quirky hotel mini-empire has been bought out by national franchises and blandified. A couple of evermore derelict motels and dear old Cap’n Benny’s are pretty much all that remain of South Main’s brief golden age as Houston’s answer to the Vegas Strip.
You always knew you were in Houston, Texas, in the Astrodomain days. Not today. Save for rodeo time, the area around NRG Park could be any suburban blahsville. It’s safer to be sure, and it’s hard to call it tacky, exactly, but it’s unmemorable and generic and home to little you could actually call fun. And it’s lodestar—NRG Stadium—is just another retractable-roof football stadium with a corporate name.
And there beside it sits its doddering old parent, the erstwhile “Can-Do Cathedral” and “House of Pain,” a decaying reminder of more interesting times to those of us who remember them and a puzzling enigma to those who don’t. And there are now many of those in this evermore youthful city, this ever-expanding city that attracts new immigrants from China, Nigeria, and Mexico, and in-migrants from Florida, California, Michigan.
Around America, save in architectural circles and among ballpark preservationists, the name Astrodome carries very little weight. I checked on Tripadvisor.com to see what tourists thought of the place. What I found instead was yet another debate among nostalgic locals or natives living elsewhere about what to do with the place, but a visitor from Oregon had this to say:
“If the name means anything to you, it’s worth a glimpse.”
Ouch. So I guess even a revamped Dome might not be much of a tourist draw on the national or global level.
And repurposing it to host farmers’ markets won’t bring back the rush of the Home Run Spectacular, zip-lining under the glass can’t duplicate the thrill of waving Columbia blue and white pom-poms while singing “Houston Oilers number one” along with 50,000 other Luv Ya Blue fans. Kids raised on Reliant NRG Stadium and Enron Minute Maid Park won’t be wowed by our memories, and preserving these comes with a $25 billion price tag.
So either tear it down, or better yet, just leave it there. Cancel all maintenance. Don’t spend another penny on it. Let it fall artfully, gorgeously, achingly to pieces. Indemnify its owners—the citizens of Harris County—against any mishaps befalling visitors to the premises and let it rust and crumble.
For those who remember its zenith, we can wallow in nostalgia; for those who don’t, it can be a sort of statement on the passage of time and the folly of man, an Ozymandias baking in the Houston humidity, watching as NRG Stadium is inevitably demolished and replaced some year probably sooner than we expect.
And in a half-millennium or so, Houston will have a pile of ruins worthy of a truly great city.
(AP File Photo)