HOUSTON (AP) — The Astrodome was once the envy of other cities, a fully air conditioned facility with a translucent roof that kept out the heat and humidity, gave synthetic grass its name, made Houston a sports entertainment destination and sparked the imaginations of baseball lovers, concert-goers and some of the country’s most creative minds.
Walt Disney, according to local legend, was so blown away when he stood under the dome that he dubbed it the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Then came the retractable roof, and the Astrodome, in its heyday the proud host to everyone from Muhammad Ali to Madonna, rapidly became a venue of the past.
Now, after years on the sidelines, the Astrodome is in the spotlight again as the leader and staff of the agency that runs the facility are set Wednesday to make a recommendation on its future.
One option could be a fate that other domes have met in recent times — demolition.
For now the Astrodome sits there, a signature feature of Houston’s skyline, in disrepair and decaying, dirt covering the floors, mold creeping up the walls, the AstroTurf that got its name from the building a dirty, rumpled mess.
“It was an amazing structure at its time,” said Mark Miller, general manager of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., the agency that oversees the Astrodome, Reliant Stadium and the other complexes on the 340-acre campus. The Associated Press toured the Astrodome earlier this week.
“People were coming from all over the world to see the Astrodome, it was that significant. People like Frank Sinatra, Walt Disney, John Wayne … just came to Houston to see the Astrodome because it was such an amazing thing at the time,” Miller added. “It seems commonplace now, but for its time, being the first, it was just incredible.”
However, the last time it was used for an event was in 2008. More memorably, in 2005 it housed refugees from Hurricane Katrina.
Today, piles of cardboard boxes litter the stadium floor alongside a crumpled mat of synthetic football field. Trash litters the stands under torn stadium seats, from which spectators watched major events from the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, to concerts by Elvis and the Rolling Stones, to the Republican National Convention.
In 1965, after Houston unveiled its marvel, complete with luxury suites, almost tasty food and beer served at clean Formica counters, comfortable press boxes and cushioned seats, other cities quickly followed suit. There was the Kingdome in Seattle — now gone. The Sun Dome in Tampa, Fla. Minneapolis’ Metrodome. And New Orleans’ Superdome, considered an improvement — bigger and better — on the Astrodome.
“Eventually, it’s always about money,” said Bob Bluthardt, former chairman of the ballparks research committee at the Society for American Baseball Research. “And the Astrodome went from being state-of-the-art to being obsolete in barely a generation.”
John Pastier, an architect who wrote the 2006 book “Historic Ballparks,” agreed.
“The fixed dome had a certain period of currency and then was replaced by retractable domes,” he said.
A roof that opens and closes has the benefit of beating back the elements when necessary while also being able to let in the air and the view.
Houston, too, wanted bigger and better. Like other teams, the Astros wanted their own stadium, so they built Minute Maid Park with a retractable roof. The NFL’s Texans also got a new retractable roof stadium — Reliant— that opened in 2002.
Since then, the Astrodome hasn’t turned a profit.
So when it came to paying millions to get inspections and permits reapproved, the corporation opted out. And the Astrodome has stood largely vacant.
Reports have been written, recommendations have been made. A multipurpose facility, with a new event floor, a S.T.E.M. — Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics — Institute and green attributes. A “renaissance” building with a museum, S.T.E.M. attractions, a conference center and a movie studio.
A dark shadow floating above, always, was demolition, the very idea of which offends some Houstonians.
But the option remains the cheapest, $128 million as of 2010, including the cost of transforming the site into a plaza with green space and a water feature, compared with nearly $400 million for a simple multipurpose facility and nearly $600 million to make the “renaissance” idea reality.
And in a state where there is no income tax and in a city that collects only sales and property taxes, the idea of using public money to build a new facility might be less popular than demolition.
Bluthardt, the baseball historian, believes Houstonians would, in the end, accept demolition.
“Houston … by nature is a city that looks to the future,” he said.
If the planners can find a sustainable model for saving the structure it is possible the Astrodome will remain.
Otherwise, it could also disappear in a large boom and a cloud of smoke.
“It will be another chapter in the Astrodome’s long history,” Bluthardt adds.
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