The Houston Astrodome opened in 1965 with an exhibition game: Houston Astros versus New York Yankees. The crowd surely went wild. Houstonians claimed the ballpark the “eighth wonder of the world.”
Yet decades later, the seats are empty. No crowds. No sports. The Astrodome, named on our 2013 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, faces potential demolition. But there’s new hope for one of the nation’s most spectacular ballparks.
The Astrodome brought professional sports to Houston. A stadium was in the works, thanks largely to former judge and Houston mayor Roy Hofheinz, when the National League awarded the city a baseball franchise in 1960. In 1965, the Astrodome was unveiled to cheering fans.
"As a young kid, I remember going to those games," says Joe Thompson, manager of the Our Astrodome Facebook group and a graduate student at the University of Houston specializing in baseball history.
“It wasn't just a game," he says. "When you went to an Astros game, you were going to a show."
The Astrodome was an experience unlike any other: Walking in, the floor drops to the field, 25 feet below ground, and the open-sky ceiling comes to view.
“The best thing about the Astrodome, especially in the summer, it was always air conditioned,” Thompson adds. “It was like sitting in a theater. Kind of like a movie at the ballpark.”
The stadium's futuristic design coincided with the growth of NASA and the Space Center, when Houston was rising as the nation's center for energy and exploration.
“It was this engineering marvel,” says Beth Wiedower, senior field officer at the National Trust’s Houston Field Office.
Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, and Evel Knievel were among the many who performed. The ballpark also served as shelter for Hurricane Katrina evacuees in 2005.
Then the Astrodome’s star began to fade. In 1996, the Houston Oilers relocated to Nashville, becoming the Tennessee Titans. Three years later, the Astros left to a new stadium downtown. The Rodeo stayed for a while but the livestock shows, too, finally moved to the newer Reliant Stadium next door.
The Astrodome was last used as a sports venue in 2002. It now lies dormant, deteriorating in the shadow of neighboring Reliant Hall, home of the Houston Texans (NFL).
But the legendary turf may see new light. On June 19 this year, the Astrodome's listing as one of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places shone a national spotlight on its plight. That same day, the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation (HCSCC) unveiled its bold rehabilitation proposal for the stadium.
“There are so many people who have many memories of going to the Astrodome, and we want our kids to go and experience what we did, even if it’s slightly different,” says Thompson.
The HCSCC's "New Dome Experience" would convert the Astrodome into a multi-purpose entertainment center for those attending events in the Reliant complex. Renovation is estimated at $194 million. The county government will vote next week on whether to send the plan to a public referendum. If the plan is rejected, demolition is on the table.
“The public ultimately will decide the fate of the Astrodome,” says Wiedower. “If we can do this in Houston -- figure out a new purpose while maintaining the historic structure -- we’ll have a model for other communities in the country.”
Thompson hopes community support for the plan will save the stadium.
“It’s such an integral part of Houston," he says. "It put us on the map. When people think of Houston they think of NASA and they think of the Astrodome.”
And as Wiedower puts it, "it’s going to take more than a swing or two of the wrecking ball” to keep Houstonians from saving their city’s beloved icon.