The eighth wonder

It was a temple to itself, a venerable host and a beacon of culture and commerce

By Ted Walker

Published November 10, 2013 8:00PM (EST)

   (<a href=''>ER_09</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(ER_09 via Shutterstock)

This originally appeared on The Classical.

The Classical
In light of the news that the legendary Astrodome faces demolition, we've decided to unlock Ted Walker's essay on the Astrodome's history and place in Houston's civic identity from "The Same Old Game,"our Classical Magazine baseball issue. If you like the essay, we think you'll also like the rest of the issue. You can buy it—or subscribe—in app form for Apple devices, or as a PDF, Kindle, or Epub file from our new Space Box store. —Eds.

“Hofheinz taps his cigar into a gilded ceramic ashtray shaped like an outfielder’s glove.”—Sports Illustrated, 1965

The Astrodome is backed against the south side of Houston’s 610 loop freeway like an old boxer sagging against the ropes. Its gray body doesn’t catch the sun like it used to. Its walls are stained with runoff, murky dark arrows streaking down yellowed ribs, absorbing sunlight and reflecting little back. I hadn’t seen the Dome with my own eyes in years, but when I moved back to Houston a few years ago I felt compelled to see it, compelled to recall the scale of the building and its relationship to the landscape, to refer to it like a metaphysical sextant as I re-acclimated to my home town. The Astrodome is, for me, the shape of the city, both low-lying and grandiose, shiny and dull, youth and old age occupying the same cells.

When I was a senior in high school, I lounged in the cheapest of the Astrodome’s seats with my friend Mike two or three times a week while Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio won games on the Astroturf far below. In those days, I complained with great self-satisfaction about the Dome, the building itself, claiming with adolescent repetition that it was like watching baseball in the world’s largest hospital, that the fluorescent lighting made the DMV seem inviting a sense of ownership, I lovingly and relentlessly put the Astrodome down to anybody who asked.

I went to college out of town, and eventually I came back. A week after the moving truck pulled away and I realized the wide-skied finality of the heat and humidity to which I had returned, the Dome beckoned. There was no good reason to go; it was miles from my home and far from anything else of interest. Plus it was dead meat. The spectacle of rodeos and sporting events that once animated the Astrodome had moved a few hundred yards west in the early millennium, to Reliant Stadium, the corporate rectangle and temple to capitalism (in contrast to the Dome, which was always a temple to itself) of the glass-walled Enron school of architecture. What was there to see?

Friends in Chicago and Seattle occasionally asked about the current state of the Astrodome. “I used to think the Astrodome was big,” I told them. “It dominated the landscape. Then they built Reliant Stadium. Now the Dome looks like a footstool.” It was the next generation of Astrodome one-liners, less proud, more resigned, and repeated so often that I started to believe it. In the halcyon shadows of Chicago’s ivy-covered cathedrals and among Seattle’s chilly, gleaming harbor creatures, the Astrodome had shrunk under the weight of my assertion until, in my mind, I could have picked it up in both hands like a garden stone.

When you come home for good, your warped and long-held perceptions of the place come up against its often more modest reality. From the car, the Astrodome still looked big. It wasn’t the centrifugal center of Houston’s South Loop anymore, but it still hummed with a gravitational allure worthy of the world’s first roofed stadium. On that bright day, I cruised past the tired Toys Я Us and the Fiesta supermarket that I used to see from the passenger side of Mike’s giant red Chevy Suburban. Barriers and tall chain link fences kept me from pulling up close to the Astrodome, so I orbited a few times, absorbing what I could through the windshield while dodging the pick-up trucks and minivans that trundled among the apartment complexes; I circled the old moon base, a satellite of love.

When I sit quietly and consider the Astrodome, I see three buildings arranged like a triptych reaching back in time. Each of the three has the straight, honest sides of a baker’s mold and the elegant, symmetrical ribbed roof, like a lunar sliver gleaming as brightly as any module from the Johnson Space Center down the highway in Clear Lake.

The first Astrodome, and the closest chronologically to present day, waits sullenly for the end, with tearstains down its sides, a shadow Dome. Politicians bicker listlessly over its fate, rekindling old concerns year after year while rodents chew leftover Astroturf and stadium seats to dust; it is out of sight in plain view.

The second Astrodome, of the 1990s, is a venerable host. Past her prime, perhaps, but she glows warmly when given the opportunity, like a well-worn ship of the line in ceremony. It was her that I described as a hospital, but she was no hospital when Randy Johnson filled her ribs with his fastballs for the last half of the 1998 season. The cannons rang when Bagwell hit his top-spin home runs.

And then the third, the most distant and the most brilliant gilded panel of the triptych, is an Astrodome that rises above the prairie like a beacon of culture and commerce. A president waves down to the preened crowd from a luxury box, his America on the cusp of war. Astronauts fresh out of orbit, in well-fitting suits and narrow ties, gawk at the scale, at the brass it took to fund and construct this palace. The brass it took to outfit every luxury box in a custom décor. The brass it took to put a roof over baseball and close it up in walls It had taken the same brass to lock a man inside a volatile Saturn 5 rocket and aim it skyward.

The Astrodome, in Texas in April of 1965, burned as brightly and broadly across the state and the country as the space machines that shared its prefix. But before it could redefine sports consumption in America, it had to stand on its own.

The man everybody called Judge looked on as a construction crew lowered the steel skull of a dome-shaped roof onto the skeleton of his coliseum. It was 1963. The Judge was born in 1912, and had served his city as a teenage salesman prodigy, a county judge, a slag magnate, a mayor, and now he was working on the title of world-beater. A salesman doesn’t beat them, though, he joins them, and the Judge wanted everybody on the face of planet Earth to join him under his dome, to enjoy the comforts he would lay out, and mark the passage of time by innings and indulgences instead of by the sun. So the Judge watched with some sense of gravity as the most characteristic feature of his monument was lowered at a pace befitting the formation of the continents.

The roof, supported temporarily by a phalanx of thirty-seven temporary jacks, lowered slowly, imperceptibly, a fraction of an inch at a time, down onto the 300-ton circular tension ring that ran along the outside of the structure. When the weight of the roof was transferred completely to the tension ring and the whole thing stood, the Judge and everybody else would know that his claims were the real deal, that he and his Roman daydream were made of stronger stuff than the sales pitches and scale models—which were themselves impressive.

At the top center of the domed roof was the crown block, an industrial-grade Tinker Toy joint, which joined the curved steel support pieces at the top. The steel beams that spread out from the crown block were called lamellae, and they formed the tines of the enormous umbrella of the Astrodome’s roof. Setting the roof onto the tension ring for good was to be the first test of the revolutionary Astrodome design, which precluded the need for interior supporting columns, enabling the later mantra, employed by the Judge and countless media in the coming months and years, that there was not a bad seat in the house. The Astrodome design, with its miracle of an air-conditioned indoor space expansive enough to host baseball and its high fly balls, was consulted on by Buckminster Fuller himself, who advised the Judge that the potential size of any dome was limited only by the cash its builders could pull together. The lowering of the roof would test this expertise. These were the crucial nascent moments of the world’s first roofed stadium, when theory and practice would intersect. For the Judge—a talker among talkers and one considered by those around him to be a masterful salesman, a consummate dreamer, and above all else a practical man—this was the moment in which the carnival barker turned towards the tent to have a look at the bearded lady.

My buddy Mike is the kind of fan that the Judge should have had in mind when he imagined a big-league franchise in Houston and the groundbreaking baseball stadium to house it. The showy side of the Judge wanted to entice the fan who would turn out for the shag carpeting, the sexy Spacette ushers, and the custom-decorated luxury boxes. But for real sales, nothing beats a lifetime of brand loyalty. When Mike was a toddler he fell asleep at night to the Astros’ iconic radio man Milo Hamilton whispering true stories about Kevin Bass and Bill Doran, Nolan Ryan and Mike Scott.

Mike was so in tune with Milo Hamilton’s cadence that he could sense the barometric shifts in the lilt of Hamilton’s deep voice even while driving sixty-five down the highway with the windows down in his old Chevy Suburban. Even when the game on the radio had faded into the background, Mike would halt a conversation in mid-sentence by raising his hand and cocking his head when Hamilton raised his tenor or the pace of his description. If it happened to be a Craig Biggio double or a defensive feat from Jeff Bagwell, the hand that Mike had raised to call for silence would ball into a celebratory fist like an umpire calling an out.

Our Astrodome sat on an impressive swath of parking lot. Mike and I spent so much of our time walking from the car to the Dome’s gates that a theologian could have classed us as low-level pilgrims. Mike, tall and lanky like a left-handed reliever, bobbed as he walked, with the head-down intent and jocularity of an experienced tour guide at a historical site.

Mike was slow to allow a flashy player into his heart. He was straightforward for a high school student, with a simple checklist of requirements from his baseball players that fell roughly in line with those of a seventy-year-old retired tractor repairman. Lackadaisical defense, loafing down the first base line, and outward displays of arrogance earned a sharp G-rated lashing from Mike. The Astrodome, vast as she was, would swallow his words in her padded seats, in the drone of the secondary scoreboard that glowed just behind us in the nosebleeds, casting a warm yellow light onto the backs of our necks.

Just so, we passed our youthful hours under the Judge’s roof.

Mike’s focus on the game, his clear-eyed comprehension and historical bent help shape baseball for me in that time. My Astrodome story, incomplete and fragmented though it may be, can’t be told without Mike. Whatever metaphysical residue I left behind in the woven plastic of those multicolored seats, glued to the beer-spackled floors, pissed into the horse trough urinals, or wedged beneath a cracked slab of concrete in the parking lot, is intertwined with his, and bound together with the hard twine of our light-hearted debate, our rambling appreciations, and our long-winded grievances.

Viewed from above, as it is in many photographs, the symmetrical, concentric roof of the Astrodome echoed the shape and scope of the city of Houston in the early 1960s. The building and the city both embraced the potential for unfettered expansion in all directions. The Texas prairie formed no natural barriers to orbital growth from the center, fueled by the dollars and the conceptual limitlessness of the freight that moved into and out of the Houston Ship Channel. That freight—including oceans of oil drilled from the Permian Basin in the crook of the West Texas elbow—connected the city of bayous to commercial interests across the planet.

In 1964, while the Judge and his crew assembled what Sports Illustrated writer Liz Smith would later call “his stately pleasure dome” in a nod to Coleridge, a man named George Mitchell bought up swaths of land from a lumber company thirty miles north of downtown Houston, driven by a vision of a master-planned community where city and country life would blend into one harmonious state of being. While the Astrodome’s impressive carapace rose up from the coastal plain, Mitchell was planting a seed that would bloom into a self-sustaining suburban city with the vigor of the fiercest invasive species. A decade before the first suburban residents moved into the Woodlands to live out the gas-fed dream of life-defining commutes and spacious lots, and years before they would register as among the country’s fastest growing communities in the new millennium, the same vision of grandiosity that drove the Judge pushed other Houstonians to expand outward. Suburbs would eventually blossom at the four corners of the compass, with the Woodlands to the north, Pearland and Clear Lake to the south, Sugarland to the southwest, and Baytown to the east. The map of Houston today, with downtown as a crown block at the center, encircled by the inner loop 610 and the outer loop, Beltway 8 like a tension ring supporting the lamellae of Interstates 10 running east to west and 45 running north to south, resembles nothing if not an overhead view of the Astrodome.

For there to be a view from the top at all, however, the roof first had to hold in 1963. The success or failure of the Judge’s grand dream would prove out by the quarter inch, in the excruciating weight transfer of the lamellae from those thirty-seven jacks onto one man’s shoulders. Almost imperceptibly, the scaffolding lowered the skeleton roof of the greatest structure in the modern world towards its ultimate destiny. The Judge peered up from below, through horn-rimmed spectacles, likely with a cigar in his teeth. He watched as thousands of tons of steel to which, since 1960, he had dedicated his life, inched toward the Texas clay.

One source indicates that the roof of the Astrodome dropped three and a quarter inches after it was set down on the tension ring and the supporting jacks were relieved of their duty. Another source reported that it dropped almost five inches, representing a difference that would in most other circumstances seem trivial but in the case of hundreds of tons of steel and the threat of utter collapse, takes on a profound significance. To the Judge, every inch must have felt a mile, and one could sympathize if he feared, on some ancient, undiscovered reptilian level, that the roof would sink past those three-and-a-quarter or five inches and keep sinking straight into the earth and disappear like so much spilled groundwater. No matter that the engineers predicted the sink within a quarter of an inch, or that the tension ring did, and continues to do, the work of Atlas without a hitch. In a culture, in the early 1960s, that glorified the great movement upwards, into the stratosphere, into orbit, and onward to the moon, Roy Hofheinz’s greatest achievement was to set something otherworldly right down on the ground.

Even as the great project moved steadily forward, the Judge must have felt those 300 tons like they were on his own shoulders. The Astrodome—at the time known, in un-Judge-like fashion, as the Harris County Domed Stadium—was his greatest gambit and the culmination of a life spent as a public servant and a city scion. The Dome was a transcendent public works project, a groundbreaking structure that would challenge the way the rest of the sports and entertainment world did business. And in a city that most people outside of Texas thought of as a dull, humid wasteland teeming with oil men in bad suits.

The Astrodome, even before it was finished, was welcomed on the national stage as a rare Houston product that wasn’t money. In late March of 1962, three years before the Astrodome would open officially, Roy Terrell wrote an article for Sports Illustrated that explored the exotic Hofheinz landscape with the awed attention to detail that writers would later dedicate to the Astrodome itself. Terrell, like a Spanish conquistador scribe recalling the wonders of the Aztec civilization, describes the Hofheinz family home: “Old circus posters adorn the walls, a white piano with red polka dots stands alongside a gaily painted jukebox, the ceiling is striped like a circus tent. On one wall, in white wooden gingerbread frames, are large caricatures of the judge and his family in circus themes: Hofheinz, the lion-tamer; Mrs. Hofheinz, on a flying trapeze; and the three children, as clowns.” Terrell yearned to chronicle the innate grandiosity of the Texan brash enough to build an air-conditioned stadium. “Downstairs is LeTrou, the pit, a basement room copied after a Parisian sidewalk cafe. Quai d’Orsay, Boulevard Montmartre, Place Pigalle, Rue de la Paix, say the signs on the walls; Parisian menus are everywhere. There is a piano from London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, and an old French wood stove.” We are still in the Hofheinz home. In the basement, Terrell found a scale model of the Astrodome sitting on an unused pool table.

The Judge, through the course of his various careers, was not one to express uncertainty on a topic. Since his early days fighting for better roadway technology, the health and safety of Houston’s children, and updated flood control measures as a 22-year-old Texas State Representative and then a 24-year-old county judge—the post that earned him the lifelong nickname, ousting his more illustrative moniker, the Bayou Buffalo—Hofheinz spoke and acted with uninterrupted conviction on an unending series of topics.

His style was to learn quickly, then draw experts and acolytes close to him, and put them to working the same strange hours that he kept, advancing ideas and batting around ways to improve and build and expand and buy. Whether on civic projects, the law (the Judge was a lawyer first, after all), moneymakers like the slag business that propelled him towards millionaire status, real estate deals, or domed stadiums, the Judge was forward motion personified. He rarely slept, working constantly, and the story emerged that, as the mayor of Houston, he never hired a regular chauffeur because he couldn’t find one who could keep up with him. Instead, he drove his publicly provided limousine himself.

No project could match the boldness of the big steel dome, however. The Astrodome was the greatest of gambles, trading in public bucks (albeit with some private funds to round off the $32 million budget) and barking for the attention of the world.

As the grandness of the Astrodome project’s ambitions increased, the Judge’s time in the public eye diminished. Cloistering himself in a glass cube somewhere in the outfield—one of many truly difficult-to-imagine details—he committed himself to every aspect of its construction, from the setting of the roof to, after construction, the cleanliness of the aisles. Working twenty hours a day, the Judge’s social calendar fell silent. He slept in a lavish apartment in the Dome. With his children grown and moved out, the house that he filled with the flights of fantasy that impressed the Sports Illustrated writer fell quiet.

The Astrodome was not the city’s first pass at the national imagination. With the the days of Sam Houston and the Battle of San Jacinto long in the rearview mirror, in the 1960s, the city of bayous would become an iconic headquarters for operations in the next of America’s literal and imaginative frontiers: space.

America’s fascination with space travel began in the late 1950s, when the rocket technology developed during World War II—primarily by the Nazis—advanced sufficiently in the hands of the Russians to launch a 184-pound metal sphere called Sputnik into space, where it would orbit the earth for ninety minutes. As men in the highest tiers of space science listened, stunned, to the pinging signal emitted by Sputnik’s transistor, the mechanisms of money, power, and technology in America sprung to new life with the goal of surpassing the magical and mysterious achievement of our Cold War nemesis.

The animosity and fear that bound Russia and the United States together is hazy for my generation, born in the 1980s and weaned on the politics of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. In the first full decade of the Cold War, the superpowers eyed the other warily, essentially unaware of their rival’s capabilities. When Sputnik flew, the Americans were utterly surprised: Only then did they realize where they stood in relation to the Russians, which is to say, behind them.

American rockets were not as powerful or as stable as their Russian counterparts. There was work to be done, and ground to make up. The singular vision of a charismatic leader, with a determined and politically savvy second-in-command, would ultimately bring the race to Houston.

In late May 1961, President John F. Kennedy declared one of the great ambitious goals in history: Americans would walk the surface of the moon by the end of that decade. The United States and its freshly named National Aeronautics and Space Administration would kick the space program into high gear on the heels of Alan Shepherd’s quick but heroic first journey into orbit on May 5, 1961, a month after the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin beat him to it. Kennedy’s shocking goal and Shepard’s pace-keeping achievement launched the space program’s astronauts into celebrity status, and set the public imagination on fire. In September 1961, NASA leaders announced that Houston would host the new Manned Spacecraft Center, where the select group of astronauts would prepare, study, and train for their epic missions, and where flight control operations would be centered.

A year after this boon for the city was announced, President Kennedy spoke to a crowd at Houston’s Rice University. He reiterated his ambitions for the moon and set forth the need for inspiration and excitement during what he called “a time of hope and fear” for the United States. The Manned Spacecraft Center would train the test pilots-turned-astronauts who would carry the expectations of a nation and its president. The Mercury Seven, the team of young and hungry military test pilots who would become America’s first astronauts, would train and plan their forays into space in Houston. In the military, they had flown the most dangerous aircraft ever invented. In Clear Lake, among the salty breezes blowing off the Gulf of Mexico, they would learn to ride rockets. Journalists would hound these men and their families as these chosen few posed for the media and conducted awkward press events. They would grin and pose, and work, study, and train for the wildest task ever heard of, gentlemen cowboys treading into unclaimed territory, blazing a trail for the country follow in.

Several influential politicians guided the selection of Houston as the site for the Manned Space Center. Most prominent among them was the chairman of the National Aeronautics and Space Council from the little peach-growing town of Stonewall, Texas: Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson, a veteran of Texas politics, won his first national office with the help of a strange but gifted campaign manager who knew the city of Houston inside and out, and had a way of gaining the support of the poor and the disenfranchised: Judge Roy Hofheinz. The friendship between the two powerful Texans wouldn’t impact the space program necessarily, but LBJ’s commitment to his home state would lend Houston the verve and direction that the Judge would look to when redefining his new franchise.

The Astrodome, from its conception and construction through its grand opening, represented the pinnacle of architectural achievement, the height of ambition, and the synthesis of civic innovation, national pride, and economic optimism. The Judge, as the conductor of this mad orchestra, was the movement’s leader, and like a Kennedy of the plains, put his uncommon energy and supernatural drive to use motivating those around him to accomplish feats that nobody had previously dared to imagine.

With the spirit of the space program and Houston’s proud new role as the brains of the operation glimmering from behind his horn-rimmed glasses, the Judge emerged from his office one day and announced to his team and to the city that the Houston baseball team would no longer be called the Colt .45s. In their bold new home, defiant of meteorology and built at a scale never seen on Earth before, the team would be called the Astros.

In 1966, baseball writer Roger Angell said of the remarkable new Astrodome that “every level of the stands was painted a different color–royal blue, gold, purple, black, tangerine and crimson—and I had the momentary sensation that I was sinking slowly through the blackberry-brandy layer of a pousse-cafe.” Lost in a sea of color could have described the Judge’s dream vision for the Astrodome, which was more than anything a place to escape to. Escape what? The Astrodome was built to beat the Holy Trinity of Houston misery: mosquitoes, heat, humidity. Come for the comfort, stay for the baseball. The Judge extended his hand to the fickle fan who valued a well-cushioned seat as much as a well-pitched game. A gargantuan A/C system created its own amenable climate, well-dressed wait staffs crewed restaurants and bars, and a massive scoreboard spanning the outfield drew awed gasps with its pyrotechnics.

“I do not agree,” Angell continued, “that a ballpark is a notable center for socializing or propriety, or that many spectators will continue to find refreshment in returning to a giant living room—complete with manmade weather, wall-to-wall carpeting, clean floors, and unrelenting TV show—that so totally, so drearily, resembles the one he has left.” But a few paragraphs later, Angell would admit: “[indoor baseball] turned out to be the same old game, the same game as ever.”

By the time Mike and I found our place in the stands, the spirit of the space race was more a historical fact of our city than a daily stimulus. We had gawked at the massive astronaut training pool at the Johnson Space Center on field trips in elementary school, but in our time shuttle launches were defined more by tragedy than triumph. “Houston, we have a problem,” became a defining trope. The Astrodome was an extension of this faded imagination. The aspirational enclosure had become a running joke. The roof and the turf, while impressive in their own uncanny way, deprived us of the pastoral joys of baseball, fueling a kind of gallows pride.

In the interim between new construction and decrepitude, the Astrodome was a destination, a spectatorial wonder: host to several strange and culturally important events, and the annual home of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which is as important a yearly civic event as a city can have. Many Houstonians can recall these events, when the Dome was at the apex of civilization and culture, when it was among the few large-scale diversions that the city had to offer its citizens. In truth, I can no longer sit still in reading or listening to an older Houstonian run down the historical bullet points: the U of H basketball game, the Billie Jean King battle of the sexes, the yada yada. By my time, our Dome—my Dome—was a scrapper of a facility, like the dive bar that you complain about relentlessly but wouldn’t have any other way.

In our time, in the late ’90s, the only transcendent moments we would get to see on our home turf were self-made, the result of winning, not marketing or politicking or event-hosting. The annals of Hofheinz’s fever dream bombast don’t include my own personal loudest and most exuberant Dome moment, when a pre-Diamondbacks Randy Johnson, a half-season rental, struck out Tony Gwynn and Greg Vaughn to end the first inning of the first game of the division series against San Diego, in front of 50,000 fans. The Big Unit didn’t beat Kevin Brown’s 16 Ks that day, and the Astros lost the series quickly, but the Astrodome gained something that that it would never lose: the energy in that sterile, carpeted hospital room had cauterized the soul of the city, filling a hole I didn’t know existed. With each of Randy Johnson’s nine strikeouts, Mike and I turned to each other and high-tenned, grasping hands for an extra beat longer than we ever had before.

The Dome has all but sunk into the earth. While Hofheinz’s tension ring holds strong, the rest of the Dome grays with mildew before Houston’s eyes (from behind its windshields at least). These days, only select people are allowed to enter the now-dangerous building at all. The powers that be recently guided some media members through the Dome, perhaps to press the issue of its decayed state. The resulting slideshows are disturbing, showing grime-choked piles of detritus and dust-coated orange and purple seats that are the stuff of the post-apocalypse. Locker rooms stand empty. HOME OF THE HOUSTON ASTROS! reads a sign over a tunnel that no one has entered for years.

Consensus dictates that something be done with the building, but money and power, apathy and confusion have resulted in over a decade of inaction and dereliction. Just the other week, the county sports authority requested proposals to redefine the Dome and its land, reviewing nineteen of them. Not one of these plans, which ranged from demolition to decadent wonderlands, met the requirements, and the only proposal the sports authority advanced was its own. The likelihood is that this megamillion dollar plan will itself fail. A county judge, who holds the same post that gave Roy Hofheinz his moniker, figures at the center of this tornado of inactivity. This fellow is probably good at his job, and he likely handles the forces at play in large Texas land deals as well as one might expect. Whatever the case, it is certain that the Judge, and I mean Judge Roy, would not have let the discussion of his dome’s fate drag out for a month, much less a year. Something, one way or another, come hell, high water, heat, humidity, or mosquitoes, would have been done by now.

Ted Walker

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