Mark Byrnes is a senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
Officials are grappling with this choice: spend tens of millions to demolish the stadium, or hundreds of millions to save it.
The former Guru Maharaji once said, "God is like the Astrodome. If you haven’t experienced it personally, you don’t know what it is."
For anyone who grew up immersed in the worlds of modernist architecture or professional sports, entering the Dome is an oddly spiritual experience. Natural light pours in from its ceiling, shining down on the decaying site. The torn-up Astroturf field is still surrounded by the late 90s ephemera of its final days (box-shaped televisions, advertisements, endzone signs for its most famous tenants, the MLB Astros and former NFL Oilers).
It's been a decade since the Astrodome hosted any local sports team, and it's in worse shape than ever before. Each year, Harris County grapples with the choice of spending tens of millions to demolish the stadium, or hundreds of millions to save it.
That debate got a little rowdier earlier this month, when the NFL Texans and the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo (both organizations occupy surrounding properties) released a study claiming the dome could be demolished for under $30 million, less than half the cost County officials have been reporting.
Even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell shared his opinion last week, suggesting that a torn down Astrodome could make it easier for its neighbor, Reliant Stadium, to host a Super Bowl by providing the site an extra 2,500 parking spots.
Since the turn of this century, plans to turn the Astrodome into a park, a hotel, movie production studio, and even a space theme park have been proposed. But none have come close to materializing. For now, the dome’s fate remains uncertain. Any sort of preservation fight today is limited to local academics and journalists.
Houston’s pursuit of growth has gone hand in hand with a lack of interest in the past. In fact, it's that attitude that led to the creation of Astrodome in the first place. When it was built in the 1960s, it was hailed as a fearless architectural and engineering feat, declaring the city’s pursuit of all things newer, bigger, and more convenient.
Inspired by the Romans' usage of velaria to shield spectators from the sun and frustration over too many rain-outs at the local minor league park, former mayor Roy Hofheinz (part of the group that brought baseball to Houston) made sure his city had a domed stadium to guarantee entry into the MLB.
Nearly half a century later, its existence hardly symbolizes ambition to most locals. With Houston itself providing limited tourist appeal, Astrodome sightings are mostly limited to those attending events at surrounding facilities. Any successful effort to save the Astrodome would end up as impressive a feat as its completion once was.
All images by Mark Byrnes