The Dome Goes Under

November 6, 2013 — Leave a comment

There is something magical about domes. Whether gazing up into the towering heights of St Paul’s in London or St Peter’s in Rome: or maybe admiring the shimmering blue tiles of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul or the simple domes on churches dotting the Greek islands. London’s Millennium Dome might not be used as was originally planned, but as The O2 it attracts hordes to performances under the roof famously rolled down by James Bond in The World is Not Enough. Stephen King thought there was something magical about domes when he wrote his 2009 science fiction book Under the Dome, now a successful television show.

But Houston doesn’t care about magic. Yesterday Harris County voters rejected a bond, 53% to 47%, to refurbish what has been called the Eighth Wonder of the World as an event centre. Had the bond passed the county property tax, static for 17 years, would have been raised by about half a cent in 2015, translating into approximately an $8 increase on an annual tax bill for a $200,000 home.

No our Dome, the famed Astrodome, built to great fanfare and opened with an exhibition baseball game between the Astros and the New York Yankees in April 1965 has just been officially relegated.

County Judge Roy C Hofheinz is credited as the man behind the inspiration to build such a monument after visiting Italy. Designed by Hermon Lloyd & W B Morgan and Wilson, Morris, Crain & Anderson of Houston, Hofheiz also sought specific input from Richard Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller, who brought his revolutionary design of geodesic domes to the drawing board. Magic indeed.

Houston’s flat landscape was transformed by this monolithic structure of exterior columns and diamond shaped concrete screens topped by a 650 feet wide dome, seemingly supported by air, breaking the horizon. And it was cool: relief from Houston’s interminable summer humidity. The elements controlled.

Watching a baseball game in the Astrodome was magic, even to a non-fan like me. When the game palled I could marvel at the construction not just of the dome itself, steel threads towering 200 feet above, but at the inventiveness of man. When players and fans alike complained in the early days of being blinded by sunlight, most of the Lucite panels were painted over which in turn killed the grass. When green dyed dirt didn’t cut the mustard for players, Monsanto’s new synthetic grass, then called Chemgrass, was the answer and was soon officially rebranded Astroturf.

It wasn’t just sport’s fan though that filled the rows of theatre seats, though thousands did file in to watch the Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Judy Garland, Elvis Presley, Metallica, Guns N’ Roses, the Tejano superstar Selena among others all performed there. Evel Knievel jumped thirteen cars on two consecutive nights, a stunt that provoked rumours of an attempt to jump the actual building.

The Dome offered shelter for many from another dome, that of the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Streams of evacuees made the Astrodome their temporary home, finding refuge among the seats and around the hallways.

Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, an annual event that draws people from far and wide used the Dome, latterly as the Hide Out for after show concerts until fire marshals deemed it unsafe in 2008. Even in its latter days there was an air of magic as you trailed down ramps after booted cowboys and swirling skirted cowgirls 30 feet down to what was the playing field.

So many stories under one dome.

Once a lone structure in the hinterland of Houston, the Astrodome is now surrounded by other sporting and event venues. The Reliant Stadium, Reliant Center and Reliant Arena all share what is now Reliant Park with the Dome but it’s hard to find any magic in any of those buildings.

“What shall we do with the Dome?” has become a cry Houstonians have become tired off. The Harris Country Sports and Convention Corporation was formed in 1999 to tackle just that question. They bought out the then-Astros owner Drayton McLane’s lease for a cool $18.8 million dollars allowing them total control of the Astrodome. Vast amounts have been squandered by those charged with its upkeep until now the Dome sits rather like a giant carbuncle, to borrow an architectural phrase from the Prince of Wales.

A variety of options have been floated for the regeneration of the 1960s architectural icon. A movie studio? A hotel? An exhibition hall? When Houston bid for the 2012 Olympic Games, the promise of a revamped Astrodome was used as a lure. It failed but the building was, nonetheless, considered important enough to be used as a draw by those doing the bidding.

However Houston has spoken. The Dome will not be saved. Instead it will be razed, though no one is actually saying those words. The mammoth hole left in Houston’s heart will be filled in, maybe to make more space for more cars.  That should please the magic naysayers. When the Astrodome first opened, along with the moniker the Eighth Wonder of the World went the tag, the World’s Largest Parking Lot able to hold 30,000 vehicles. Or maybe it’ll be used as a retention pond – one idea floated recently.

Who knows? Houston doesn’t. But one thing is certain; the magic has gone!




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