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Raze the Roof

Houston put a man on the moon and performed the first artificial heart transplant. So why can’t it save the Eighth Wonder of the World?

By January 2014Comments

Illustration by Thomas Fuchs

The building squats in an unprepossessing part of Houston adjacent to Loop 610, on a sea of asphalt parking lots, between a hulking, nondescript football stadium and a sprawling, nondescript exhibition hall. The exterior has a forlorn, forgotten look—among other things, its steel and concrete shell could use a good scrubbing—while inside, the decor could best be described as Seen Better Days: most of the furniture and floor covering have been stripped out, dirt and dust cake the windows, and there is a nose-wrinkling whiff of mildew or mold—or both. It’s best to wear a hard hat, in case of falling debris. In fact, the Houston fire marshal declared the building unsafe in 2008 and closed it until further notice. And yet even in its current state, the place is costly: the taxpayers of Harris County pay $3 million a year for the privilege of “maintaining” it, funds that could go toward repairing pitted roads or building satellite libraries. But tearing it down would be no bargain either: the official estimate to do so hovers at around $28 million.

That building causing so much anguish is, of course, the Houston Astrodome, once known as the Eighth Wonder of the World because, when it opened for business, in 1965, it was the world’s first covered stadium. The Dome, as it has been referred to affectionately, was the architectural and engineering marvel of its time, a soaring, air-cooled sports cathedral the likes of which had never been seen before. It had five restaurants inside and an electric and electrifying four-story scoreboard that went nuts whenever the Astros hit a home run. “Cowboys appear, bullets ricochet, a snorting bull comes out and it is generally the Battle of San Jacinto,” Liz Smith wrote in 1965 in Sports Illustrated. “If the opposition homers, the board actually says ‘Tilt.’ ” And when the Dome wasn’t home to (better) baseball and football teams, it played host to events like tennis champion Billie Jean King’s rout of male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs, Evel Knievel’s motorcycle flight over thirteen cowering cars, and concerts by stars like Elvis Presley, Judy Garland (with the Supremes as her opening act), the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, and Selena. Muhammad Ali fought Cleveland Williams there. The GOP had its 1992 Republican convention there, the one in which semi-native son George Herbert Walker Bush won the nomination. Even in its dotage, Houston’s covered stadium managed to serve as the generous, welcoming counterpoint to New Orleans’s dank, dangerous Superdome in the aftermath of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. 

But perhaps most important, the Astrodome was for decades a symbol of Houston’s unrelenting can-do attitude. Send a man into space? Sure! Perform the first artificial heart transplant? Of course! Build a domed stadium? No problem, and we’ll use local architects and engineers to do it! After all, nothing is harder than punching holes in the ground in search of elusive fossil fuels—everything else is a piece of cake. The building that was the dream of Judge Roy Hofheinz cost $45 million, with eager voters chipping in more than $30 million in bonds. The covered stadium was just one of several innovations; when the Lucite ceiling blinded outfielders trying to chase down pop flies, it was painted white. But that blocked out the sunlight and killed the natural grass, which in turn had to be replaced with a product called . . . Astroturf. And because Hofheinz understood just how badly Houstonians in particular and Texans in general needed to feel special, he was the first to include private luxury skyboxes in his stadium—his being the most spectacular. Smith, who knew a mythic Texan when she saw one, described it this way: “Yellow velvet chairs on gold-ball legs can be pushed up to the window so that VITs (Very Important Texans) can look down at the green diamond below. The adjoining living room boasts an aureate Oriental dragon, and a circular stair leads to a Fu Manchu bedroom which Hofheinz admits is ‘just a showcase for my Madison Avenue friends who think Indians are loose when they go west of the Hudson.’ Even as the judge displays his sauna, another gilded toilet and some of the 26,000 pounds of art picked up in a six-day tour through Hong Kong, Thailand, and the Middle East, he explains them away as window dressing. ‘Dealing in intangibles as I do,’ says he, ‘the sooner people see something like this and realize you have some ideas, the easier it is to sell your product.’ ” 

Of course, the product he was selling wasn’t just a domed stadium but Houston itself—its imagination, its energy, and its egalitarianism (bleacher seats were only $1.50, and the Dome was integrated). Houston—not New York or Los Angeles or any other metropolis on the make—was the American city of limitless possibilities.

It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when the Dome began to lose its luster. As time passed, bigger and better stadiums were built elsewhere, and simultaneously Houston was becoming more, well, refined, more interested in the tony Menil Collection than upgrades to a fusty old stadium. In the seventies and early eighties, Philip Johnson had replaced the judge as the great builder and arbiter of local architectural marvels, with the twin-towered Pennzoil Place and the jaunty, postmodern Republic Bank building serving as the emblems of Houston’s global power and sophistication. Soon enough, the Dome became something like a crazy, embarrassing relation, best confined to the attic. And everyone around these parts knows what happens to embarrassments that get in Houston’s way, right? Houston Chronicle columnist Lisa Gray explained the public’s attitude toward the Dome to me this way: “It’s old, it’s ugly, let’s get rid of it.”

At least, that’s the desire of half the population, including some members of the county leadership, along with powerful business interests, not to mention the Houston voters who rejected a $217 million initiative in November to revamp the building into something called the New Dome Experience, a multiuse conference and exhibition center. After the election, surveys showed that people wanted to save the Dome, but they just couldn’t get behind that particular plan. Houston’s success has never hinged on nostalgia, and, as the vote revealed, few seem willing to make an exception now, even for the Eighth Wonder of the World. So, from a distance, the Dome’s days seem numbered, despite the hue and cry from local architects, preservationists, sentimentalists, and—probably worse—publications like the Los Angeles Times and the Atlantic, which have begged the city not to destroy a landmark of modern architecture. 

In fact, the fight over the future of the Dome shows Houston trapped in an unusual state of ambivalence, between its hell-for-leather adolescence and its more restrained, worldly maturity. Impatience has cost us some of the most wonderful buildings to ever see the light of day, in particular the Shamrock Hotel, which featured the world’s largest outdoor swimming pool when it opened in the late forties, and the Prudential Building, with its stunning art deco statuary out front and Peter Hurd mural indoors. But local preservationist Anna Mod notes that Houston in recent times has become far more willing to protect pieces of its history: Hermann Park, the county courthouse, Buffalo Bayou, and the Julia Ideson library have enjoyed the kind of extensive face-lifts that any Houston socialite would envy. There have been protests over the construction of new residential high-rises in wealthy neighborhoods. We even tightened up a useless preservation ordinance in 2010 to provide honest-to-goodness protection for buildings in historic neighborhoods that were in danger of being torn down. “In the early nineties Preservation Houston’s Good Brick Awards were given at a small cocktail reception at the Museum of Fine Arts,” Mod told me. “Now it’s a seated dinner for more than four hundred.”

Maybe what’s most surprising about the languishing Dome is that, in a city that prides itself on innovation, no one has had the vision or the will to come up with a workable plan to save it. Some of the more novel proposals came from a contest sponsored by the Architect’s Newspaper, a national trade journal; ideas included turning the Dome into an ark in time for a final, devastating flood (the floating dome would hold the contents of the Houston Zoo, the MFAH, and the Rice library, among other things). Or turning the ceiling into a giant, perpetual video experience (“After you’ve made the earth artificial, why not make the sky artificial? Astroturf: Astrosky”). Or converting the surrounding parking lots into a park and turning the building into a 13,000-car parking garage (“This is a monument to the pain in the ass that parking is in Houston”). 

On the more serious side, a University of Houston grad student suggested stripping the Dome down to its steel skeleton—its best attribute—and using the space below as a sprawling outdoor park, with room for soccer fields and picnic areas. Less impressive was the suggestion of county commissioner Steve Radack, who thought that if the Dome had to be demolished, it should be converted into a detention pond to help with flood control. 

In truth, many here want it both ways: to save the Dome but to make it pay for itself too. As Mod puts it, “We can’t save it just because we think it’s wonderful. We have to make it economically viable.” Hence the less than exciting New Dome Experience compromise—the one that left voters so uninspired—which proposed Olympic time trials in temporary swimming pools and huge trade shows whose organizers might have somehow preferred South Houston to the more convenient George R. Brown Convention Center downtown. It was a short-term fix, but as Mod points out, sometimes the best long-term solutions come with new technologies or new economic landscapes. If the Shamrock Hotel had avoided the wrecking ball for just a few more years, it could have been converted into the kind of luxury high-rise everyone could love. 

But patience has rarely been a virtue here—and is even less so now, with plans for the 2017 Super Bowl in the offing. The fate of the Dome now rests with the Harris County commissioners, who have passive-aggressively favored demolition and now have voter support for it. At the time of this writing, the only salvation may be the slim possibility of a public-private partnership to repurpose the stadium. Developer Ed Wulfe is trying to launch such a plan, which he hopes will compete with not just Discovery Green, Houston’s lively new downtown park, but the likes of the Hollywood Bowl in terms of drawing crowds. “It needs to be bold,” Wulfe told me. “Like Judge Hofheinz’s idea fifty years ago.”

Maybe the Dome has been a victim of hard luck, sandwiched as it is between two competitive predators: the Texans and the Livestock Show and Rodeo, or rather Reliant Stadium and the Reliant Center exhibition hall, both of which are hungry to snatch the Dome’s footprint for themselves. And maybe Houston has come into its own, having become the kind of place that no longer requires grand gestures and zany leaders to get the world’s attention. 

Still, it would be nice to have a few reminders around, just to show the youngsters how things used to be done.

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