Astrodome spared? Group suggests overhaul, reuse

HOUSTON — The Astrodome was once the envy of other cities, a fully air-conditioned stadium that had a translucent roof to keep out the heat and humidity, the first synthetic grass — and the power to make Houston into a sports-entertainment destination.

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 stadium designers began building venues with retractable roofs. And the Astrodome, in its heyday the proud host to everyone from Muhammad Ali to Madonna, rapidly became a relic of the past.

Now, after years on the sidelines, the Astrodome is in the spotlight again. The agency that runs the facility planned to render a recommendation Wednesday on its future. One option could be a fate that other domes have met — demolition.

For now, the signature feature of Houston’s skyline is mired in disrepair and decay. Dirt covers the floors. Mold creeps up the walls. The AstroTurf that got its name from the building is 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., which oversees the Astrodome, Reliant Stadium and other complexes on the 340-acre campus.

“People were coming from all over the world to see the Astrodome. It was that significant. People like Frank Sinatra, Walt Disney, John Wayne,” Miller added. “It seems commonplace now, but for its time, being the first, it was just incredible.”

However, the dome has not been used for an event since 2008. More memorably, in 2005 it housed refugees from Hurricane Katrina.

On a tour taken this week by an Associated Press reporter, piles of cardboard boxes littered the stadium floor alongside a crumpled mat of synthetic football field. Trash was strewn around the stands under the torn seats, the same ones from which spectators watched the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, concerts by Elvis and the Rolling Stones, and the Republican National Convention.

In 1965, Houston opened its marvel, complete with luxury suites, almost tasty food and beer served at clean Formica counters. There were comfortable press boxes and cushioned seats.

The original plan even called for natural grass on the field, but it couldn’t grow under the skylights after they were painted to reduce glare for athletes. At one point, when the grass turned brown, groundskeepers spray painted it green.

Plastic AstroTurf debuted in 1966 as the first artificial playing surface. Ballplayers soon began complaining that it was unfriendly to knees, backs and joints, and balls didn’t fly as far in the enclosed air.

Other cities quickly followed with their own domes: the Kingdome in Seattle, now gone; the Sun Dome in Tampa, Fla.; Minneapolis’ Metrodome; and New Orleans’ Superdome, considered bigger and better than 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.

The National Football League Houston Oilers left for Tennessee in the 1990s. Major league baseball’s Houston 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 renewed, the corporation opted out. And the Astrodome has stood largely vacant.

The idea of demolition 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. That’s compared with nearly $400 million for a simple multipurpose facility and nearly $600 million to remake the dome into a “renaissance” building with a museum, science-and-technology attractions, a conference center and a movie studio.

In a state with no income tax and 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 find a sustainable model for saving the structure, the Astrodome could survive. Otherwise, it could disappear in a large boom and a cloud of smoke.

“It will be another chapter in the Astrodome’s long history,” Bluthardt added.

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