More Than 8 Reasons to Save the 8th Wonder of the World

I’m not quite old enough to recollect the first time I walked into the Astrodome, but I know it was in April 1965 for a contest against the Baltimore Orioles that was part of the inaugural five-game exhibition series that also included the famous Mickey Mantle home run. My earliest memories do include a barrel full of moments at the Dome, though. It’s where I saw the great Bob Gibson and Willie Mays, where I can still visualize Roberto Clemente rounding third to beat a throw to the plate. And it’s where Jimmy Wynn and Rusty Staub became my first favorite ball players.

               Our sports memories, however, are not created in a vacuum. I was at that 1965 baseball game with my dad. He’s the guy who took me to hundreds of other games there. It was with my parents that I saw the fabled UH-UCLA basketball game in 1968. The All Star game played there that same year? I saw that one with my dad and my cousin. When I earned a pair of free Astros tickets for being a straight-A student, I took my grandfather, a man who helped stoke my early fire for baseball. In the 1980s, my best friends and I were regulars for the Astros and Oilers, and experts at heckling the Dodgers and Steelers. By the last decade of the Astros’ Dome days, I was taking my own daughter to her first baseball games. As wonderful as the sports portion of my Dome visits might be, the warm memories of the people with which I shared them is far more important.

               All of those people are among the reasons that I helped organize a coalition of history and preservation groups. Running a campaign to educate voters about Harris County Proposition 2 has given all of us involved a chance to interact with literally thousands of other Houstonians who can’t wait to share their own memories. Places can touch lives, and the Astrodome is a place that is part of Houston’s DNA.  

The Astrodome cost $37 million to build in the early 1960s, and it quickly became the most important building in the history of our city. Nothing else even comes close. It is our icon. Houstonians could travel the world over, and at the mention of their hometown, people would say “Astrodome!” It symbolized Houston as surely as the Eiffel Tower meant Paris or the Empire State Building meant New York.

But if passion and pride don’t move you, then maybe good economic sense will. The National Trust for Historic Preservation, one of the primary partners in the Our Astrodome coalition, initiated an outreach tool called “8 reasons to save the 8th Wonder of the World”. With input from coalition partners, they were refined, and I’m paraphrasing them here because they’re damn good reasons.

Over the years, since the initial public money used to construct it, the Dome has benefited from many more millions in maintenance and upgrades, and would cost almost $300 million to replace in 2013.  We’re sitting on an enormous investment of public money.  Why throw that away?

               And what would physically throwing it away mean? In a word- Waste. If demolished, the Astrodome would contribute thousands of tons of waste to local landfills, and result in an embodied energy loss of 1.38 billion MBTU.  It’s even more wasted energy to tear it down and haul it away –10.5 billion BTU. And the monetary cost to tear it down, haul it off and fill the hole? Well, that’s been estimated from $40 million to as much as $100 million. It’s a well-documented fact in construction that the greenest building is the one that’s already built, so it makes infinitely more sense to fill the Astrodome with people than fill landfills with the Astrodome.

The New Dome will serve all of Harris County – from high school football, graduations and swimming championships, to international festivals, the Houston Livestock and Rodeo Show, special events and expanded fan tailgating experiences. The Dome will be a vital part of the experience at Super Bowls and Final Fours held here. It will be a true destination, and just as the original stadium did for decades, a repurposed Astrodome will foster memories and experiences for generations of Houstonians and visitors to our city.

For those who still have questions, here’s one you need to ask: Does Houston really need one more surface parking lot[j1] ? The answer is no. Without getting too deep into the amazing selfishness that makes Houstonians believe they are entitled to a close parking space anywhere they go as the sole occupant of their private cars, I can give this one an absolute no. A large percentage of people at the Texans games are using multiple spaces already for tailgating, and the option of a parking garage has been floated and turned down before. If we truly wish to continue to spurn sensible public transportation, then at least we could use our space more wisely and build a garage. A couple of hundred more surface spaces benefits only the guy pocketing the parking money.

Another common and completely specious refrain from naysayers is “if they can tear down Yankee Stadium, they can tear down the Astrodome.” First off, how is that a logical argument at all? It’s metaphorically like saying if they can shoot Lincoln, they can shoot McKinley. For one thing, the original Yankee Stadium was pretty much torn down in the mid-1970s. All that was left was a piece of façade. It was such a complete replacement that the ball club played at Shea for most of two seasons. Secondly, and most importantly, Yankee Stadium wasn’t the first of its kind in any way whatsoever. It was a completely indistinctive architectural work. But don’t take a Houstonian’s word for it. Earlier this year, the New York Times called the Astrodome “the most important, distinctive, influential stadium ever built in the United States.”

Sometimes it seems as if people outside of Houston recognize the importance of this building more than we do ourselves. An engineering marvel and an icon of Modernist architecture, it was the largest domed structure on Earth when it opened, eclipsing the previous largest dome by almost twofold. The Astrodome set the standard for decades of design and construction of arenas and stadiums around the world. The Dome literally changed the way we watch sports. It had the first luxury boxes. For better or worse, it had the first artificial turf. It was the first stadium in the world to defy weather. The Astrodome was the first domed stadium. In the world. EVER.

The repurposing will once again position the Astrodome as a one-of-a-kind special events venue, allowing for more column-free exhibition space than any other facility in the world. For the last several years, our largest convention, the Offshore Technology Conference, has been forced to operate partly out of tents in the parking lot. The OTC enthusiastically supports prop 2 because they know the New Dome will make their event even bigger, and that comes from a conference that already draws more than 100,000 attendees to Harris County with an estimated annual economic impact of $160 million.  The addition of a revitalized Astrodome will enable Houston to attract the biggest of the big conventions and meetings. That, my friends, means money.

The last reason I’ll list is my personal favorite, and it’s this: The Astrodome symbolizes Houston’s ingenuity and innovative spirit, which is stronger than ever today.  A repurposed, reimagined, living Astrodome will once again shine a national spotlight on Houston and be a tangible example of our can-do character. It would qualify as the largest critically endangered structure ever saved.

This Tuesday, Harris County votes. A YES vote on County Prop 2 saves the Astrodome and makes it a living building once again. A no vote, and it gets demolished. Let’s make some more memories for future generations of fathers and daughters, grandfathers and grandsons. Let’s show the world that Houston is capable of taking the long term view, that we don’t tear down all of our history. Let’s make a smart decision. Vote YES on Harris County Prop 2.