By Amanda Hart
Photos by Richard Ramirez II
In 1965, the world’s first doomed multipurpose building was born right here in Houston. Sorry, did I say doomed? I meant domed. The dooming part came decades later when the “eighth wonder of the world” sat unused and unmaintained for countless years. The Astrodome in its heyday was proof that Houston was ahead of its time. Houston is a city of growth but in order to continue that we need to learn how to incorporate our past.
In the early ‘60s our former mayor, Roy Hofheinz, was granted a major league baseball franchise after he promised to have a covered facility built due to the less than pleasant elements we experience in Houston. Turns out, it’s not good business to expect your players and fans to bake in the sun or suffer through our tropical summer showers. The story goes that Hofheinz got the idea to build the Dome when he was visiting the Flavian Amphitheater, better known as The Colosseum, while on vacation. It was here that he learned that the Romans constructed awnings to protect spectators from the sun. When the Dome was completed in 1964, it stood 18 stories high and covered nearly 10 acres. And boy was she a beauty. Well, by Houston standards she was considered a beauty. We seem to have a fascination with ugly infrastructure and the Astrodome really brings the Houston landscape together. It could be argued that without the Astrodome, Detroit, Minneapolis, Seattle, New Orleans, and Indianapolis would never have had the pleasure of knowing their fully-domed stadiums. Many of the other domed stadiums have already met their demise or are in the process of being repurposed for other uses. Indianapolis imploded their RCA Dome in 2008. Their community of artists had a genius idea though and repurposed not only the roofing material but also used fabric from the dome to create messenger bags, wallets, clutches, and other unique goodies. Just imagine what sort of treasures we could create using the unforgettable orange vinyl seating still inside the Dome.
Over the last many years, numerous ideas have been tossed about by private and public entities as to what to do with the Dome. Everything from an indoor ski resort to a film studio to a converted green space has been considered. But after many years of rumors and speculation about the Dome’s fate, we now, thanks to the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation (HCSCC), have been given a timeline for the future of the Astrodome. HCSCC has given public and private entities until June 10, 2013 to submit their proposals. All submissions must include viable funding options in order to be considered. In the past, lack of a firm plan for financing has been the main reason no action was taken. On June 10, HCSCC will narrow down the best proposals and turn those over to the Commissioners Court. According to County Judge Ed Emmett, who is one of the five judges residing on the court, they will begin the process of picking which option is best for Houston by June 25. Emmett stated that he believes at this point in the process, they will be ready to hold town hall-style meetings to receive public input on the final decision regarding the Dome. “If you go out now . . . you get as many ideas as there are people in the room,” Emmett said. “We need to narrow that so that the public knows where we’re going.” Once a final option has been decided, the final decision will end up on a ballot possibly as soon as this November.
One proposal that has received some well-deserved attention came from a University of Houston architecture graduate student, Ryan Slattery. Slattery wrote his master’s thesis about the future of the Astrodome. In the proposal, Slattery brilliantly concludes that the best use for the Dome is to make it green space while maintaining the bones of the structure as a monument. Slattery’s vision is for the bones of the Dome to remain intact, such as the iconic domed roof. By removing elements such as the walls, seating, and the mezzanine, then planting trees and grass, Slattery has designed one epic green space. Slattery told KHOU, “What I propose is taking something that is ignored and avoided and turning it into something that can be experienced. If you don’t need it, it does not need to be there. It is never going to be a stadium again. So, you don’t need the seats. You need to take those seats out. Concrete on the facade? You don’t need that. Leave what ultimately is the Dome. When people go to the neighboring Reliant Stadium for events, they walk around the Astrodome. Why not turn it into part of the experience? It can be like the Grove at Ole Miss. People can tailgate there or vendors can set up shops. It can be a flexible, functional space. With a project like this you get to interact with a piece of Houston’s past that has been repurposed for Houston’s future.” This guy knows what’s up. Not only is Slattery’s proposal helping to create access to more green space, but it’s also doing it in a way that tugs at our heartstrings by preserving a bit of our city’s history. Along with this plan offering a place for tailgating, Slattery also proposed the location could be used as exhibition space and an outdoor grazing area for the livestock that visit every year during the Rodeo. To deconstruct the Dome would be far cheaper than demolishing it. How expensive can it be to plant some grass and trees as opposed to paving it over to be a parking lot?
In the last month, countless articles have reported that all of this commotion is simply a way to get us to a place where we can demolish the Astrodome.You see, Houston has been selected as one of two cities in the running to host the 2017 Super Bowl. In an NFL news conference, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was asked about a recent study commissioned by Texans owner Bob McNair and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in which they concluded it would cost $30 million to destroy the Astrodome and replace it with a parking lot. According to Goodell, “That issue is for the community to decide, but I think having an extra 2,500 parking spaces would enhance Houston’s bid.” Boom. Game over friends. If you remember correctly, the only reason Houston got a light rail in the first place was because we hosted the 2004 Super Bowl. If we were willing to spend $300 million on a light rail that ended up causing more problems than it solved to get the Super Bowl here, one can assume that the chances of the Dome making it out of this battle alive are slim to none.
Currently, the Astrodome stands as a reminder of what Houston once was and, depending on the Dome’s fate, what Houston has become. We have a knack for razing historic buildings and building something new or replacing them with parking lots. The Astrodome was the first of its kind and showed our ingenuity as a city to the rest of the world. Very rarely do Houstonians put up a fight when it comes to preserving our history in building form. We often look the other way when historic buildings meet their demise and actively brag about our weird no zoning laws. This time though, our hearts are telling us that the Dome deserves better and should remain intact in some way.
Any native Houstonian over the age of 25 more than likely has very distinct memories of climbing the cement walkways to their seats and cheering the Astros or the Oilers to victory. We might remember eating turkey legs from the comfort of our orange seats while artists like George Strait or Reba McEntire serenaded us with terrible ‘90s country music from their revolving stage during the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Some of us might remember being a kid, covering our eyes as bull riders and calf scrambles did semi-abusive things to the animals they rode, chased or wrestled to the ground. And who could forget the childhood memory of ending every event by rolling down the large, grassy hill that surrounds the Dome leaving you quite itchy but willing to run back up it and do it all over again. Okay, so maybe those are my own fond memories, but I guarantee you that we all have childhood memories similar to those. Our memories and appreciation of the Astrodome extend far beyond childhood antics and resonate with people long after it had been abandoned.
Dave Maclean, published author and founder of the Poison Pen Reading Series, reminded me about one of the last ways in which the Dome was used. “My favorite memory of the Astrodome is after Katrina. The place was flooded with people–the floor awash in cots and piles of belongings. The people who donated food were Krispy Kreme, Chick-fil-A, and Coca-Cola, so the place stank of bodies stuffed full of sugar and fat. There was tension, anxiety, and fear everywhere, but it was a badly needed refuge for people. The Astrodome opened itself up to the dislocated people of New Orleans. Compare this to Joel Osteen who wouldn’t open the doors of his megachurch to house any refugees, and I realize that the Astrodome was more giving, more charitable than even Houston’s most famous Christians,” said Dave. Dave’s favorite memory is not an uncommon one, which proves that the Astrodome’s impact on us as a community reaches far beyond hot dogs and sporting events. The Astrodome, in many ways, represents who we are as a city. Let’s just hope we find a way to repurpose the building so our children can be allowed to make their own memories in the “eighth wonder of the world.”