CloseImage 1 of 1 Called the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Astrodome opened in 1965. Called the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Astrodome opened in 1965. Photo: Pat Sullivan, Associated Press Prominent Houstonians' ideas on what to do with Dome 1 / 1 Back to Gallery
When the sparkling new Astrodome opened 46 springs ago Saturday, people gasped. It was indeed the Eighth Wonder of the World, a monumental, first-of-its-kind melding of mid-20th century technology and Houston's can-do, damn-the-torpedoes mentality.
Nobody before had dreamed it possible to put a roof on a stadium and then blast a cooling gale of air-conditioning into the cavernous space below. No matter. There's tremendous synergy in the fact that Muhammad Ali was a local resident when the Dome was shiny and new and a magnet for tourists by the thousands from around the world. The Champ once said, "If I say a flea can pull a plow, don't ask questions - just hitch him up."
That pretty much sums up Houston back in the day.
Not only did Judge Roy Hofheinz's fantasy come to fruition, it was completed six months ahead of schedule and right on budget, mammoth exploding scoreboard and all. But, here in the early 21st century, Houston seems utterly flummoxed by what's becoming a more daunting feat than merely bridging the sky with a 642-foot span of steel.
Peace in the Middle East might happen before we get a handle on whether - never mind how - to transform that faded, forlorn edifice huddled behind Reliant Stadium back into a viable venue, or simply do unto it what we've done to so much of our history.
Settling the debate will arguably frame our city's mindset going forward. But the issues are about as complex as they can be, which makes resolution inordinately difficult. In short, there's nothing approaching a cheap and easy way out.
Lynn Edmundson, a preservation consultant and the co-founder of the nonprofit Historic Houston salvage effort, calls the Dome "the Holy Grail of all Preservation projects … because it represents so much, and not just to Houston."
"If the Astrodome wasn't around anymore," said City Councilwoman Jolanda Jones, who grew up here, "I'd think I was living in some other universe."
In a perfect world, one without want, one unburdened by either-or priorities and increasingly anorexic budgets, probably nobody would favor getting rid of the Dome. Poll a cross-section of sports figures, politicians, scholars, developers, architects, artists and civic leaders to weigh in on the bedeviling dilemma confronting Harris County, which must ultimately make the call, and, although their reasons vary greatly, their sentiments vary little.
"It's a beautiful building," said Nestor Topchy, a contemporary artist and sculptor who looks at the Dome and sees a modern incarnation/interpretation of Istanbul's famed Hagia Sophia, the most magnificent of the Byzantine churches.
But the Dome is also a mess right now, full of deadly asbestos, molds, a whole geological stratum's worth of dust and who knows what else. But that nasty stew, ironically, may be its ultimate salvation. Although they blew up Texas Stadium for about $7 million, the figure for leveling the Dome is said to be in excess of $100 million, and that gives even the most ardent Dome-sayer pause.
Why so much? Even after the asbestos is removed, the tremors caused by imploding it could damage Reliant Stadium, so a "piece by piece dismantling" will be required, explains Narendra Gosain, a senior principal with Walter P. Moore, the firm originally responsible for the Dome's structural design. Walter P. Moore also consulted when San Antonio took apart the Hemisfair Arena, which Gosain calls a "mini-Astrodome."
Explosives couldn't be used on that venue, either, because of how close it stood to the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.
"The frame was the same, just much smaller," Gosain said, "and it required a very slow, painstaking process."
So the staggering price of demolition has kept restoration and repurposing as possible lesser-of-two-evils options. Although Morris' Hudson, speaking from his heart, suggests "the worst strategy is to have it sit there in a forlorn state continuing to deteriorate," the county is not yet on the clock. A rash decision needn't be made because the building has strong bones.
The weathered, stained exterior, which the tens of thousands of visitors in town for the Final Four at Reliant Stadium have no doubt found startling, is mostly superficial, Rice's Fox suggests, saying: "The Astrodome is very well-built. It can stand a lot of neglect."
Elvin Hayes, the basketball Hall-of-Famer who made himself the epicenter of one of the Dome's most electric nights - UH 71, UCLA 69 in 1968 - likes to point out how "Hurricane Ike blew through here (in 2008) and left the Reliant Stadium roof flapping in the breeze. But the storm didn't bother the Astrodome any, did it? It just sat there, strong and steady.
"That building has had some bright days and it's full of wonderful memories for a lot of people. I hope it has many more. I can't believe we can't come together as a city and find a new purpose for it."
The Houston Chronicle interviewed a cross-section of prominent Houstonians from wildly diverse backgrounds for their views on the future of the Astrodome:
One of Houston's most respected landscape architects, Keiji Asakura of the Asakura Robinson Co. dedicates much of his time and energy to projects meant to improve the city's aesthetics and quality of life.
"Yes, historic preservation is important. If there's any adaptive re-use that's sustainable, both financially and from a green perspective, then absolutely it has to be done. But it has to be the right thing, and I see how hard finding that might be. But venue has to work with what's already there, so I think it should be sports, entertainment or convention-related.
"It must be a functional space. It's not the Pantheon, so we shouldn't preserve it unless it's useful. It can't sustain itself as an architectural monument, even though there's a lot of sentimental attachment.
"I think the decision has to go back to will of people. Let them make a decision (perhaps by a public referendum) on what we should do next. It's fair to ask how long should the public have to pay for something that's not being utilized."
Elvin Bethea called the Astrodome home for all 16 seasons of his Hall-of-Fame NFL career. His first game as a rookie defensive end with the Oilers in 1968 was also the franchise's first game there.
"(Demolishing the Dome) would devastate me. I remember walking in there that first night and looking up at all those skylights and thinking, 'Man, this is my new home.' You talk to me about the Dome and I get a little choked up.
"Think what it did for Houston. Think about the memories we've all got of that place. Those Monday night games, those pep rallies (after the Oilers lost back-to-back AFC Championship games in Pittsburgh) … You don't tear down something that has that much history in it.
"I didn't like the Astroturf. No, I didn't. It beat me up pretty good. It was definitely detrimental to my health. But I put up with it because the Dome was so special. Nobody had a stadium like ours. You didn't have to worry about the rain, the cold or the heat, and the roof made the fans seem twice as loud as they would have been outside.
"I still tell people today how proud I was to play in the Eighth Wonder of the World. It would be crazy not to find a way to save it."
There's probably no living person who has more personal history intertwined with the Astrodome's history than Larry Dierker. He first pitched there when he was still a teenager and threw a no-hitter there in the twilight of his career. After broadcasting games from the radio booth for 19 years, he moved down to the field and managed the Astros to division championships in each of their final three seasons as tenants. During the last one, 1999, he also suffered a life-threatening seizure in the dugout.
"In the mode of it being the Eighth Wonder of the World, you might could re-create the Hanging Gardens of Babylon (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World). You take the seats out and create something with trees and giant plants on (the stadium floor) and have your hanging gardens cascading down from the terraces. If you clean the windows in the roof panels, you'd let enough light in to grow things.
"When the Dome gets dirty like it is now, it looks like hell. It's not the way you want to remember what's clearly a very historic building. It doesn't make any sense to let it just sit there and rot away. But you can let sentimentality stand above fiscal responsibility. Keeping the Dome has to make economic sense and, with the state, county and city governments all drowning in debt, it's a real difficult problem to solve.
"Seeing it torn down wouldn't make me sad from a personal standpoint - not like losing a loved one would - but I would be disappointed, profoundly disappointed."
A Vietnamese immigrant who first settled in Spokane, Wash., Gigi Do has been in Houston since 1991 and attended many events in the Astrodome. She has been coordinator of the International Initiative for Houston Community College for the last seven years, helping foreign students here and spreading HCC's word around the world.
"It has so much history, going back to its original heyday, so certainly something constructive should done with it. The Dome has given much joy to everyone, not only entertainment but also been a shelter after how it housed the Katrina people from Louisiana.
"I heard so much about the Shamrock (Hilton) Hotel, but I never got to experience or see it. I must say there is a heart and soul of a city that should remain and the Astrodome is part of that. We (HCC) work in Doha, Qatar, and everything there is so new. It doesn't represent the ancient city anymore.
"The Astrodome is a part of our past that should be preserved. I don't do sports, but the (Hurricane) Katrina experience was very meaningful for me. Houston was the first to open its arms to those victims from Louisiana. The spirit of Houstonians speaks from its actions and, as an immigrant, that's very significant to me. And I will tell you that some day that some of those people will come back to see this place, where something special happened for them."
Robert Eckels, a senior adviser with National Strategies Inc., served six terms in the Texas Legislature and then was Harris County judge when the Astrodome was rendered obsolete by Minute Maid Park and Reliant Stadium. That put him on the receiving end of multiple proposals for finding a new use for the building. Growing up in Bellaire, he could see the Dome's construction from his backyard.
"What should happen it is what makes economic sense for the community and the facility. But what that is I don't know. It's a challenge, a very complex issue. What's especially difficult about the Astrodome is that you've got to overlay the interests of the Rodeo and the Texans, who pay a large portion of the costs of operating Reliant Park. How do you operate as a separate entity if there's going to be competition for entertainment dollars? You have to be sensitive to that, and the building is well past its prime and in need of a major renovation.
"There's a place, I think, for an additional big place in the (Reliant) complex. I've heard a lot of interesting ideas - a separate athletics facility, a hotel, different smaller-space entertainment venues, even an indoor ski slope - and they're all great if you can find a way to finance them. But so far there hasn't been a market to support any of them."
Lynn Edmundson, the co-founder and executive director of Historic Houston, has a masters degree in architecture from the University of Houston and has been committed to local preservation projects for more than 15 years.
"A tip was given to me a number of years ago by preservationists who came before me. For most places around the country, 50 years is a crucial turning point.
"If a building reaches 50 years and it's architecturally significant, then you can rally the forces to preserve it. But in Houston, because we're built on the idea that new is always better - don't preserve what we've got, just tear down and start over - our buildings don't make it to 50 years.
"At about 30 to 35 years, they start needing maintenance and they get to the point where they're looking dilapidated, and then it makes it real easy for people to say, 'Oh, I understand. It costs too much to fix that up.' So we usually lose buildings around the 35-year mark and that's when the Astrodome started becoming endangered.
"The county is in a bind. I understand that. It's a big white elephant, and they don't have the money to bring it back so it's become a kind of demolition by neglect.
"I was hoping the Rodeo would stay in it as their permanent venue, but when they moved I kind of thought that was the kiss of death. Except it has hung in there, God bless it, and yes, I think an effort needs to be made to save it.
"If they do it right, the new Astrodome can be exponentially fabulous. If they go with the quickest fix, it will become a blight all over again."
Narendra Gosain, a native of India who came to Houston in 1969 to get his Ph.D. in structural engineering at Rice, is a senior principal with Walter P. Moore, the firm responsible for the Astrodome's structural design. He worked closely with the head of the original engineering team, Ken Zimmerman. They co-authored a paper on the challenges the building presented that has been permanently archived by the Library of Congress.
"I had not heard about this beautiful stadium until I arrived here, so I took my wife and my daughter with me for a tour, which was part of my (Rice) orientation. Just walking around, I was awestruck. Wow!
"It pains me today to hear that tearing down the Astrodome would be an option. I don't even like to talk about it. We can't afford to get rid of the Eighth Wonder of the World, which was a pathway and a beacon for so many other sports stadiums around the world.
"Our mentality of building and then demolishing has to change. I don't want to sound biased because of my history and my company's history, but there are certain things you must preserve. It was a very spectacular venue, and it can be again."
A professor at the Rice School of Architecture, Carlos Jimenez sits on the board that awards the Pritzker Prize, considered the highest honor a living architect can receive.
"(Tearing down the Dome) would be a terrible waste of something that's such an important part of the city's history. We have a tendency to suffer amnesia.
"I always found it fascinating to go there and see this gigantic space. I've favored creating a natural occupation of the space, and not necessarily for sport. Maybe it's another program such as ecological center or a planetarium, where kids could go and understand the universe. It just seems to me our imagination should not be limited. There are so many fantastic things, so many opportunities, that could occur there. It's an extraordinary building. It seems such a shame that everything gets ruled by business interests.
You think of other buildings in history that don't continue on (in use) and they become a marvelous ruin. But we have this approach that if something is not producing, let's destroy it, get rid of it."
Jolanda Jones, an attorney, is a member of the Houston City Council. She also ran track at the University of Houston.
"It's historical. Until the Astrodome, people thought we were a cowtown, that we were all cowboys and rode around on horses. And it's why people came here, and why people will come here again to see it if we make the right decisions.
"From a long-term perspective, you've got to think about what happens in 20, 30 years, what kind of economic development it can generate, not just that it's a drain on the taxpayers right now. We need to think about what's going to happen when we're long gone because the sun's still going rise and the world will keep on going.
"Hey, I love that building. In 1975, I went to see Michael Jackson and the Jackson Five. And when Andre Ware was quarterback, we routed Texas there. People sometimes forget I'm a Houston Cougar. I've got vivid memories of the Astrodome."
Larry Kellner, former CEO and chairman of Continental Airlines, heads up the Emerald Creek Group, a private equity firm, while serving as chairman of the Greater Houston Partnership.
"What I think is critical is when people think about Houston, they think about two things, the Astrodome and NASA, and I think it's important we protect that history. As a kid growing up in South Carolina, I remember the Astrodome. I remember people, my parents included, talking about the Astrodome. It was the most fascinating thing to me, and I was only 6 years old (in 1965).
"I never dreamed I'd live in Houston. I will tell you, I was so excited the first time I got to go to a baseball game in the Astrodome - and that was in 1998. It was my son's first game, too. We had such a great night there.
"(The construction of the Astrodome) showed the spirit of Houston. Yeah, it may be hot here in the summer, but we were going to find a solution. And when the glass (in the roof) was a problem, we came up with Astroturf. I think we need the same ingenuity now, to make sure we keep the Dome."
Catherine Clark Mosbacher
An attorney, public affairs consultant and community volunteer, Catherine Clark Mosbacher became the president and CEO of the Center for Houston's Future in 2008.
"Because of the Astrodome's huge size, we believe it can host of number of things. It doesn't have to be converted into one thing. I like what (county commissioner) El Franco (Lee) has proposed, creating a center of excellence for science, energy, technology and math.
"Also, we don't have an energy museum in the city, which is the energy capital of the world. The American Petroleum Institute will be basing its center for off-shore safety in Houston. The Dome could provide office space, festival space, exhibit space. It may not be a really awesome building anymore, but it can be made back into something awesome again."
Greg Ortale has been the president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention and Tourist Bureau since 2007, after having serving as the executive vice president and general manager from 1979 through 1987. He spent the intervening 20 years heading up Minneapolis' convention and visitors association.
"The Astrodome made us a national convention city back in the day. It really brought to this community hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars, not just for the Astros but all the conventions. The old Astrodomain complex was a tremendous facility, iconic even, something that has a brand that goes well beyond the metropolitan area.
"I do believe it should be preserved in some usable format. I personally like the idea of converting it to a hotel. The Reliant venue really needs a first-class hotel to take advantage of its potential as a convention center. But, if it can't be used in a significant way, it should be torn down. Put up a plaque and say it was a great building, it meant a lot to our community and we're sorry it's gone.
"It ought to be a gravesite or a fully functioning facility - nothing in between."
Gordon Quan, a former Houston city councilman, is co-chairman of Foster-Quan, one of the country's leading immigration law firms.
"We need to make it into a kind of community facility, where a lot of games can go on year-round, and maybe venue for sports outside the norm. When I was on City Council, we looked at cricket. That field, it's historic to play on the Astrodome surface, where you saw the Oilers, that Billie Jean King (vs. Bobby Riggs) match, all these great events. Just to stand on that field, look up at the Dome, you think, 'What history there has been here!' Obviously, there are costs involved, but let's find a solution … maybe bring in foreign investors.
"I think there's such great potential for it because this is a sports-loving city. And I think of the old Yankee Stadium, how they sold the seats, the turf. (The Dome) isn't going to be a major facility with 60,000 seats, so let's look at how we cannibalize the parts we don't need."
Nestor Topchy is a local contemporary artist and sculptor who works in a variety of mediums.
"I was traveling with my wife in Turkey. We went to see the Hagia Sophia (the most famous of the Byzantine churches) and it was just astounding. It started us talking about the Astrodome. The Ottoman architects were so impressed with this magnificent Dome that minarets were later added in the Islamic vernacular.
"So one of my friends sent me an image of the Astrodome with the minarets being Saturn V rockets. I thought that was great. Here you have a bunch of stuff that's considered no longer viable, but it's extremely viable if it's re-purposed. We reconcile differences between things and we allow them to co-exist.
"So I was thinking, what if there was a place that could be a multiservice center? In the same way that we have live-work spaces, why can't we have live-work-believe spaces? What if we had this great civic center and we could somehow allow different faiths to at least go to the same oasis in different times of the day in hopes of their eventually growing closer to each other?
"For that matter, you could turn the Astrodome into a new Garden of Eden. The point is: It's a very classic and adaptable structure, and it's crying out to be tweaked.
(Editor's note: The image of the Astrodome surrounded by the Saturn V rockets can be found on Topchy's Facebook page.)
Ed Wulfe, founder of Wulfe & Co., has spent 41 in commercial real estate, development and property management, and has in recent years restored numerous properties, including Gulfgate Shopping Center. He attended the first baseball game in the Astrodome, a preseason game against the Yankees in 1965.
"If the president can come in here and say we're going to the moon in 10 years (which the U.S. did seven years after John F. Kennedy made that promise at Rice Stadium in 1962), then surely we can come up with a whole series of workable plans for the Astrodome.
"It's a huge challenge. There's no one silver bullet that's going to save the Astrodome. It will be a multiphased process and it's going to take flexible thinking and county funding. But with vision and leadership, something great can happen. (County Judge) Ed Emmett needs to create a blue-ribbon panel. Let's get our most powerful, influential and knowledgeable people together, have them roll up their sleeves and figure it out.
"We've got to be smart enough to protect that icon. The classic example of something like this is the Colosseum in Rome. People are still going to see it, and walking through it. That shows the importance, the permanence of the brand."
Source : http://www.chron.com/news/houston-texas/article/Prominent-Houstonians-ideas-on-what-to-do-with-1683126.php