Who Killed The Dome?

added 11/7/2013 by Bob Hulsey

Another icon of my youth is going away and this one hurts more than most because it isn't a celebrity or an eatery that is passing but a stadium that is soon to meet the wrecking ball - the famed Houston Astrodome. She's just 48 years old but, due to willful neglect, appears much older.

When I was young, you could count on Johnny Carson hosting The Tonight Show and Walter Cronkite delivering the news. The Baseball Game of the Week was on NBC with Curt Gowdy calling the action (and, lest I forget, Astros games were on KPRC-AM with Gene Elston and Loel Passe).

Shopping centers like SharpsTown were the latest craze and Memorial City had just opened. Freeways were always free.

Houstonians were proud to be at the forefront of sports stadia with the world's first air-conditioned "all-purpose" facility. It was dubbed the Harris County Domed Stadium but nobody actually called it that, including Judge Roy Hofheinz who ran the place. Judge Hofheinz struck a futuristic chord when he decided to rename the new baseball team after the heroes working down at NASA who were not going to let a little something like gravity prevent them from reaching for the heavens. So it was marketing genius for Hofheinz to call the team the "Astros" and his new palace the Astrodome.

One recent article said the Astrodome represented the "can-do spirit of the times". If Houston was too hot and humid for summer baseball, we could build a ballpark to play the games indoors with comfortable theatre seats. Judge Hofheinz even built an amusement park across the highway with air conditioning vents pumping cool relief into the hot outdoors. That park is gone too, by the way.

Over at the Medical Center, the world's first heart transplants were being done and advances in fighting cancer were developed. Houston reflected a Texas attitude that there was nothing that couldn't be overcome with vision, pride, prayer and a lot of elbow grease. It was a proud time to be a Houstonian.

The Astrodome still is perhaps the one Houston building known throughout the world. The Astros and Oilers played there. So did the Cougars and the Rockets. Elvis sang there. Mohammad Ali boxed there. Billie Jean King struck a blow for equality there. Billy Graham preached there. Evel Knievel jumped there. Howard Cosell got truly excited there. George Bush the Elder was nominated for president there (and in true Oiler fashion, blew the lead and lost the big one). Finally, for a few chaotic weeks, Hurricane Katrina victims started over there. You didn't have to explain to visitors what the Dome was, only how to get there.

But, today, NASA is a shell of its past glory, AstroWorld is gone, Elvis, Kneivel and Hofheinz have met their maker and the future of health care appears to be in jeopardy with the threat of a full-on government takeover which is long on both promises they never intended to keep and glitches they never intend to fix.

Can-do spirit has been replaced by "the new normal". The Astrodome is just the latest victim of its cynicism - that America is no longer great or innovative and that the greatest catastrophe this nation can suffer is when the government quits printing welfare checks.

Perhaps the Dome was, indeed, irredeemable with major events pushed next door to Reliant Stadium and the Astros driven out to another cookie-cutter "retro" downtown park with quirky designs and little soul; a vacant echo chamber as it hosts 100-loss editions you can no longer watch on television. The Astrodome was built to be truly a leap forward. Minute Maid Park was erected as a "me too" design, built to keep up with the Joneses and increase revenue streams.

Still, longtime Houstonians thought something was salvageable of the Dome. Make it a movie studio. Make it a hotel. Make it an office building. Make it a gambling casino. Make it a convention center. Make it a museum. Make it all of the above. The County had offers. Their direction seemed to say they wanted it all along to be a parking section. Now, they are getting what they wanted after letting it rot.

So, who do we point the finger to and blame for the old girl's demise? You can start with the recently deceased Bud Adams who owned the Oilers and demanded the dismantling of the famed scoreboard so he could put in more seats or he'd move to another city (which he eventually did anyway). Larry Dierker once said the Dome lost its character when the scoreboard was torn down and it is hard to disagree.

Drayton McLane, Hofheinz' predecessor, was first and foremost in denying that Adams needed a new downtown football stadium. Then, after Adams left, he decided what the Astros needed was a new downtown baseball stadium.

Once the two major tenants were gone, the Dome needed to find something new to bring in revenue but, other than the occasional high school football game or concert, it couldn't capture a new identity.

Yet, as the voters themselves ultimately decided, it was the people of Houston who said they did not want the Dome any longer. The icon of a can-do past had no future in a won't-do America. Like NASA and SharpsTown, the Astrodome is a worn-down relic of a time now largely forgotten. It truly makes me sad.