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Why Save the Astrodome?

We all know the story.  We’ve all heard about how a scrappy, ambitious, second-rate city without a professional sports team dreamt up a crazy plan to play baseball indoors, then lured a new, major-league team to town.  Dreamers like County Judge Roy Hofheinz and Bob Smith knew that playing any sport in Houston can be a challenge, but providing a game-changer like indoor baseball would be an irresistible gimmick for a baseball franchise.  Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Houston learned that anything could, and maybe should, be air-conditioned.  Both public facilities and private homes enjoyed escaping Houston’s humidity in the dry, cool air.  By the time Houston got its first air-conditioned shopping mall in 1961, the Houston Sports Authority had plans on paper for the world’s first enclosed, air-conditioned sports venue.  Harris County voters agreed, and in 1965, the Astros took to the mound under a canopy of steel and clear acrylic.  The boasting began immediately — not a foreign concept for any Texan.  The Eighth Wonder of the World was born.

Since its debut, the Astrodome has been an extremely versatile member of the community.  Rodeo, football, soccer, basketball, tennis, boxing, bullfights, concerts, circuses, monster truck rallies, movies, and even a political convention held events, to varying degrees of success in the Dome.  Just about anyone who lived or visited Houston since 1965 can recall at least one cherished memory.  But, be careful!  This is where many Astrodome naysayers lie waiting to pounce.  They love telling you that New York City tore down the nearly-sacred Yankee Stadium, The House That Ruth Built, where countless unforgettable sports memories were born.  If New York could tear down Yankee Stadium, then we could certainly nuke our own signature stadium.  Well, my fellow Houstonians, that is a false comparison.  How many landmarks does New York have?  Hundreds?  Thousands?  Now compare that to Houston.  How many honest-to-goodness landmarks does the Bayou City have?  Not so many that we can afford to squander them.  Besides, the Astrodome is so much more than a sports and entertainment venue.  Sure, whether winning or losing, all hometown sports teams promote a local identity to a national and international audience.   Sports teams give us a great communal experiences.  But the Astrodome is so much bigger than a mere monument to past sports glories.

Look at how and why we built it in the first place.  Look at the bravado and ambition that produced it.  Look at how the City of Houston has since became a citizen of the world.  We built a world landmark, then the world came to visit.  We boasted, “Look at what Houston can do!”  Put simply, the Astrodome is the physical manifestation of the soul of Houston.

I’m not interested in reading anymore insulting, insensitive, and ugly articles calling for the demolition of the Astrodome, our beloved, erstwhile, and hopefully-future, signature landmark!  “Tear it down” is the laziest of attitudes.  Yes, we demolish frequently here, more than most cities do, but I have yet to hear any legitimate argument for the wrecking ball.  Sure, the Dome might be dingy-looking from a lack of a good scrubbing, but the original steel and concrete structure was built to withstand hurricanes, tornadoes, Texas-sized insects, and even rowdy sports fans.  It still stands proudly.

Houston is a creative, funky, do-it-yourself city.  We are tinkerers, dreamers, and innovators.  That tear-it-down attitude is a slap in the face to Houston’s preservation community and to the creative spirit pervading so much of Houston life.  Look at such projects as the Art Car Parade and Discovery Green, both of which emerged from leftover ideas to become institutions.  Both showcase what’s best about Houston.

When looking at some of the more ambitious projects we’ve undertaken as a community, I’ve noticed that the price tag is the first thing we all collectively forget.  Yes, finding financing for anything is tricky at best case, and impossible at worst case.  But I won’t let that limit my imagination for a potentially ambitious reimaging of Houston’s signature landmark.  To make my point, I ask you to consider Discovery Green.  Celebrating its 5th anniversary this month, this first-class Downtown park and destination is an unqualified success.  From the design to the programming, Discovery Green is a welcome destination for Houstonians and visitors alike.  It’s now impossible to imagine Houston without it.  I ask, “Who cares what it cost?”  If the idea captures everyone’s imagination, then we’ll just make it happen, we’ll find the money.

I imagine our revived Astrodome as a beloved destination for all — someplace that Houstonians and guests visit, and someplace that the Rodeo and football tailgaters can enjoy too.  Take the lessons we learned at Hermann Park, Discovery Green, and Market Square and employ them here.  Make it simple.  Make it open to the public year-round.  Make it a place for families, groups, or even the solitary pedestrian to wander around and marvel at this massive architectural wonder.  Let’s let everyone inside to behold the 640 foot span overhead.   Let’s bring back the 4-story scoreboard.  Let’s make it a monument to Houston’s innovators – we certainly have plenty to celebrate.  Let’s feel tiny underneath the massive structure and contemplate our own place in the universe.

As I’ve said before, the Astrodome is Houston’s Eiffel Tower and carries inside it the soul of Houston. We’ve never matched it, and should strive to imagine what else it could be, while respecting all the excitement, bravado, and technological innovation that it generated.  Remember the identity it provided young Houston in the eyes of the world.  And then, as long as naysayers get out of our way, we can do better than simply tearing it down.  What’s the rush?  Let’s get it right.  Why save our Astrodome?  Because we can!

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