First-term Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the most powerful political figure in the county, has said she is more concerned with matters of flood control and criminal justice reform than worrying about an abandoned sports stadium. So for now, it’s option three.
Now a graying eyesore and neglected home for cats and rats, the Astrodome enjoyed a glorious past. The stadium opened on Friday, April 9, 1965, with the Houston Astros hosting the New York Yankees in a preseason exhibition game remembered for countless “firsts” and a lasting impact on stadium architecture.
Its official name was the Harris County Domed Stadium, but everybody called it the Houston Astrodome, or just the Dome. The first domed multipurpose sports stadium and largest indoor space ever built, it soon was the third most-visited structure created by humans in the country, behind the Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Rushmore.
Opening night at the Astrodome marked the first baseball game played in air-conditioned comfort. The grounds crew wore astronaut space suits. Way up high, above the nosebleeds, were the first luxury skyboxes. The first exploding scoreboard, bigger than a football field, rewarded home runs with 45 seconds of animated cowboys shooting pistols, bulls snorting and fireworks. Sitting in Astros team president Roy Hofheinz’s opulent suite, President Lyndon B. Johnson dined on fried chicken and ice cream. Texas Gov. John Connolly threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Celebrities, public officials, Texas gentlemen in suits and boots, and ladies with big blonde Texas hair teased practically to the roof packed the shimmering Astrodome.
The announced crowd was 47,876 — not bad for a stadium with a listed seating capacity of 42,217.
The Houston baseball team became the Astros on that night in 1965. For three seasons before, they were the Houston Colt .45s. Their jerseys sported a pistol with smoke pouring from its barrel. When Hofheinz and community leaders gathered for the Dome’s groundbreaking ceremony in 1962, they didn’t wield shovels. They fired guns loaded with blanks into the earth.
The Houston Astros played baseball under glass from 1965 to 1999, before moving to the shiny new Enron Field. And with that, one of the most successful architectural achievements ever was abandoned for a stadium named for one of most scandalous bankruptcies in U.S. history.
Elvis Presley played the Astrodome as headline entertainer at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. The University of Houston edged powerhouse UCLA in college basketball’s “Game of the Century,” Billy Jean King roared past Bobby Riggs in tennis’s Battle of the Sexes, Muhammad Ali conquered Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams, Evel Knievel jumped 13 cars on a motorcycle. NBA and MLB All-Star Games, Billy Graham Crusades, a Republican National convention, Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Selena, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, George Strait and Madonna all graced the Astrodome.
The all-time Astrodome attendance record of 67,925 was set in 2001, when Stone Cold Steve Austin pinned The Rock at WrestleMania X-7. Perhaps the Astrodome’s finest moment, certainly its most emotional statement, was in 2005, when Harris County Judge Robert Eckels and Houston Mayor Bill White ordered the Astrodome’s doors open to 25,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees. Houstonians donated so much clothing and supplies that they had to be asked to stop bringing things.
The Astrodome has been closed for business since 2008, shut tight by the Houston Fire Department, although it has become a social media challenge for young people to sneak inside and post a video on YouTube.
The Astrodome quickly inspired numerous indoor sports stadiums, including the Pontiac Silverdome, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, the Kingdome in Seattle and the RCA Dome in Indianapolis. All have since been torn down, and like the Dome, replaced by indoor stadiums with even more bells, whistles and high-ticket luxury suites.
Today there are 67 major stadiums with permanent or retractable roofs. Six big league baseball teams and eight NFL teams play under a roof. Both multibillion-dollar NFL stadiums under construction in Los Angeles and Las Vegas will have roofs. There are 20 more smaller domed stadiums for sports such as tennis, track and aquatics. There’s a covered bullfighting ring, seating capacity 11,000, in Logrono, Spain. Come 2020, all four Grand Slam tennis events will boast center courts with roofs.
The Astrodome may be a dead issue in Houston, but the Eighth Wonder lives wherever a baseball game is played indoors during a thunderstorm, and whenever fans shed their clunky snowsuits to enjoy a football game in shirtsleeves during a blizzard.