The late Judge Roy Hofheinz was a raconteur with a 57-inch waist and affinity for cigars and Diet Dr Pepper with Jack Daniels, a larger-than-life man who hatched the idea of climate-controlled sports with the Astrodome.
He thought his beloved Dome trumped France’s best-known landmark.
“The Eiffel Tower is nice,” Hofheinz once told an ambassador from France. “But you can’t play ball there.”
Ironic then that the Eiffel Tower, which was designed to be a temporary structure, draws roughly 7 million visitors to Paris each year, while the Astrodome, built to withstand hurricane-force winds, has become a civic albatross: an abandoned eyesore that will require millions of dollars to retrofit or raze. The Astrodome turns 50 this week like a loner tooting a paper party horn on his birthday. Which is a shame because the Astrodome remains an icon in a city short on them. It’s a symbol of hope and ambition, a gaudy testament to dreaming big and subverting nature.
Hofheinz’s son, Fred Hofheinz, who, like his father served as mayor of Houston, said “as a building, obviously it’s an icon. But more than that, it also affected a lot of lives.”
The Astrodome is a sentimental landmark for generations of Houstonians, inspiring a T-shirt with its mid-century silhouette and the slogan “Come and take it.” Paul Slayton, the Houston rapper who records as Paul Wall, frequently sat in the Dome’s $1 seats for Astros games. “My mom would always tell me I was watching history,” he said. “The Oilers games were the same way.”
But the Dome also suggests transience. Its original Bermuda grass wilted when its 4,000 Lucite skylights were painted over to help outfielders better track balls. It was notorious for being a pitcher’s park, where fly balls full of promise went to die. Its artificial turf was hard on athletes regardless of their sport. Hofheinz sought a presidential nominating convention at the Dome but didn’t get one during his lifetime. George H.W. Bush’s unsuccessful re-election bid started there.
And now the Eighth Wonder of the World sits empty in the shadow of NRG Stadium.
“To the naysayers and Dome-deniers who claim the unused landmark is embarrassing, I disagree,” said James Glassman, founder and director of Houstorian, a preservation group. “I think our willingness to seek a good solution and not hastily tear it down shows that Houston has grown up, that we’re not the impulsive, past-be-damned community we once were.”
Glassman is in favor of salvaging the Dome itself over a multi-use green space.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett has said “just leaving the Dome in place to deteriorate has never been an option.” He put the annual maintenance cost at $166,000, and wouldn’t rule out demolition, though he seems committed to finding a new use for the space, such as an indoor park and recreation area.
The question becomes: Is the Astrodome better as a landmark and a destination or as an idea? The financial stakes are higher for the former, whereas the Dome already is being used as a city symbol. Local beer maker 8th Wonder Brewery has a popular logo that plays on an old Astros and Astrodome insignia. And a patch featuring the Dome really should be restored to the sleeves on the Astros’ uniforms, even though the team hasn’t played there for more than a decade. Nostalgia for the Dome is rooted in our ever-changing city’s ephemeral relationship to the past.
I feel like we’ve been talking about the Astrodome forever without getting anywhere. My criteria for success still haven’t been met, that’s for sure. Whether you think we need to be bold or you think we need to quit kidding ourselves, we’re not going anywhere until we all have the same answer to that old question “what should we do with the Astrodome?”