The Year of the Astrodome

Allyn West reflects back on a tumultuous year for our beleaguered, beloved Dome.

By Allyn West December 10, 2013

Sunday night, while the neighbors, the last-place Texans, were away, Cherry Demolition detonated the charges they had set a few weeks before and imploded the grime-streaked ramp towers that were added to the Astrodome in the late ’80s. The towers crumbled without incident, it appears. But I was convinced that the year was going to end with an “accidental” hole blown out of the Dome and a mistakes-were-made, what-can-you-do shrug from the Stewards That Be. Cherry would have released a statement announcing its surprise; it did a fine job with Foley’s, after all. And then we would have heard from the Honorable Whoever: We can’t just let the Dome sit there with a hole in it. It just ain’t right. And it would have seemed merciful to take the Dome out back, as it were, and put it out of its misery.

When I moved here and saw the real thing, a gray pustule next to the freeway, I couldn't understand what the fuss was about.

Look: Like many Houstonians, I wasn't born here, and I'll be buried somewhere else. I'm not an Astros fan. Evel Knievel and Elvin Hayes were before my time. I've never been inside the Dome, I doubt I'll ever get to, and it's hard for an outsider like me to summon much sentiment for the old thing. I grew up in the ’80s in a small town in the Midwest, and news of the Dome's exaggerated engineering and space age splendor didn't travel that far north. "Astrodome," as far as I knew, was the generic term for any enclosed stadium with fake grass, as any tissue was a Kleenex, any pill a Tylenol. (In fact, there's the Cuneta Astrodome in the Philippines that's been recently recruited into service as an emergency shelter.) When I moved here and saw the real thing, a gray pustule next to the freeway, I couldn't understand what the fuss was about. Reliant Stadium was so much — well, more. It was like seeing an athlete from the ’60s, with his droopy sweatsocks and ashy complexion, standing next to Dwight Howard. “I used to think the Astrodome was big,” writes Ted Walker in a Salon essay. “It dominated the landscape. Then they built Reliant Stadium. Now the Dome looks like a footstool.”

Yes, Dome apologists might respond, but it was the first footstool. It's our footstool. 

The question, for years, has been what the city should do with the ol' footstool. Declared unfit for occupancy in 2009, it costs us about $3 million a year just to sit there and fester. And this year seems to have brought the festering and the questioning to a boil. Last spring, the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, the body in charge of Dome stewardship, announced that it wasn't going to accept any more private proposals for repurposing it after June 21. That date came as a surprise; we'd never been asked to submit proposals in the first place.

But 19 or 20 proposals came in by the deadline. Some of them, I've been told, were half-baked, barely more than notes on cocktail napkins. Beyoncé's dad thought he might like to turn it into a water park, but he never got around to e-mailing anyone. The proposals, I've been told, are in a box in an office somewhere in Reliant Park. When I called the HCSCC to ask whether I could see them, I was told that someone would be in touch with me about that. When I called back a few weeks later, I was told that someone would be in touch with me about that.

At any rate, the HCSCC decided that not a single proposal was worth recommending to the County Commissioners. Instead, they dusted off one of their own to dumb down the Dome into a convention center. They said they had to reject the private proposals because none came with funding. Their own idea didn't come with funding, of course, but that's what public bonds are for.

And so the question of the Dome was further reduced to an either/or proposition: Do we want to spend $217 million to clean it and put in big windows so we can host offshore technology conferences, or don't we? Mayor Parker urged us to say yes. So did Preservation Houston. So did freeway billboards and a social media hashtag, #SaveTheDome, and limited-edition cupcakes and a truck with chunks of AstroTurf and a row of rainbow seats inside. Nevertheless, Proposition Either/Or failed. Commissioners said all along that a failed measure would likely lead to demolition, even though preemptive demolition began several weeks before the vote went down; crews at Reliant Park took apart the ticket booths, razed the grass berms, ripped up utility connections. Judge Emmett said that that needed to happen anyway, whether the Dome goes boom or gets reused. He called them "improvements."

A few weeks ago, Mayor Parker gave a talk at the Rice School of Architecture. She said that even though the bond didn't pass, she doesn't think that that means most Houstonians want the Dome demolished. She thinks most don't want to pay for a "boring" and "really dumb" plan — or, as Adam Chandler writes, "a redesign so strikingly anodyne and banal that it sparked public debate about whether the idea was conservative because it was courting success or because it was courting failure." Warren Moon, former Oilers quarterback, was quoted in the Atlantic: "[T]he historical importance of it is something you want to take a look at too, no question about it. The question is, ‘With Reliant Stadium sitting right next door, what do you keep it for?'" 

As for me, I'd rather see a hole in the ground and feel that pang of loss as I drive by than have to watch something that was as ambitious as the Astrodome be used to host graduation ceremonies or whatever; it's almost a defilement, like turning the Rothko Chapel into an adult bookstore. What got the Astrodome built was vision. And it was a vision that deserves the half-century's worth of superlatives it's been given. If we're going to tear the Dome down, we need a damn good reason. And if we're going to keep it, we need an even better one. I don't think most Houstonians care, now, about the quality of the architecture or the logistics of the engineering. We care about meaning. It's no longer a question of beauty; it's a question of audacity. If we're going to keep the Astrodome, we need to figure out a way not just to allow the thing to keep standing but to keep alive what it meant in the first place.

Allyn West is the assistant director of communications at the Rice Design Alliance

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