Obsolete Stadium Is Now Serving a Tragic Purpose

Louisiana resident Nureka Jacobs and her children are turned away from shelter at the Astrodome in Houston after being told that the stadium is for bused-in refugees only.
Louisiana resident Nureka Jacobs and her children are turned away from shelter at the Astrodome in Houston after being told that the stadium is for bused-in refugees only. (By Carlos Antonio Rios -- Houston Chronicle Via Associated Press)
By Thomas Heath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 1, 2005

The announcement yesterday that as many as 23,000 Hurricane Katrina refugees will be bused from the New Orleans Superdome to the Astrodome in Houston focused the spotlight on a pair of buildings once viewed as engineering marvels that have been turned into relics by the fast-changing economics of the sports world they helped to revolutionize.

The Astrodome, which opened in 1965, and Superdome, which opened in 1975, are national and local icons, identified with Houston and New Orleans as much as the Golden Gate Bridge is with San Francisco and the Empire State Building with New York. They ushered in a period of domed multi-sport facilities, introducing fans to AstroTurf, luxury suites and climate-controlled sporting events.

"They are the super-daddies of their times," said Janet Marie Smith, who helped design Oriole Park at Camden Yards and now works for the Boston Red Sox. "Most of their sister facilities of that era, the era of multipurpose stadiums, are gone. Clearly there is structural stability to them. The question is whether or not there is an economic life for them. What a curious way for us to be forced to explore their future than through this natural disaster."

Because of their size, strength and spaciousness, stadiums are a logical haven in disasters. The Ford Center and the Cox Business Services Convention Center (formerly the Myriad) in Oklahoma City are designated as tornado shelters. Giants Stadium in New Jersey and Shea Stadium in Queens, N.Y., were used as staging areas in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City. The Superdome provided refuge from Hurricane Georges in 1998 and Hurricane Ivan last year. Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego was used as an evacuation site during the Southern California wildfires of 2003.

But the structures have outlived their everyday sports usefulness. Over the last decade, most teams have moved away from the impersonal, multipurpose facilities of the 1960s and 1970s, preferring single-purpose stadiums such as Oriole Park and FedEx Field that can be tailored to the demands of one sport and adorned with fancy suites and club seats that generate more revenue.

"The economics of sports has passed" the Astrodome and Superdome by, said Matthys Levy, chairman of Weidlinger Associates, a New York-based engineering firm, and designer of the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

The Astrodome cost $35 million to build and opened in 1965 as the first major roofed sports stadium. It was billed as the "Eighth Wonder of the World" by Judge Roy Hofheinz, then the owner of baseball's Houston Astros, and included about 45,000 seats, 53 skyboxes and a $2 million scoreboard. It was home to the Astros and football's Houston Oilers.

The roof was initially made of clear panels to allow sunlight to reach a grass field, but baseball players couldn't spot fly balls against the ceiling and the panels were painted, forcing the introduction of plastic grass -- AstroTurf. In 2000, the Astros moved to Minute Maid Park, a $250 million stadium with a retractable roof. The Oilers left for Tennessee after the 1996 season, and the city's current NFL team, the Texans, plays in Reliant Stadium, which sits next to the Astrodome.

Though the building hosted the 1992 Republican Convention and Billie Jean King's "Battle of the Sexes" tennis victory over Bobby Riggs in 1973, it is now an afterthought -- hosting the occasional rodeo, corporate softball game, even a bar mitzvah -- that costs about $1.5 million annually for upkeep.

The Superdome, built at a cost of $134 million, opened in 1975 and seats 72,968 for its only major tenant, the NFL's Saints (the NBA's Jazz left for Utah after the 1979 season). It has 137 luxury suites and more than 14,000 club seats. The Superdome has hosted seven Super Bowls and four NCAA Final Four men's basketball tournaments, helping turn New Orleans into a premier destination for major sports events.

That may not last, however. The Saints would like the state to modernize the Superdome or build a new, $600 million riverfront stadium.

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