Houston can't quit the Eighth Wonder of the World—but it can't quite decide what to do with it, either.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett is mounting the best defense of the Astrodome since Vernon Perry picked off four passes and blocked a field goal in a playoff game against the Chargers back in 1979.
It's been a long time since the Houston Oilers or any other team called the Astrodome home, and voters rejected a bond measure to adapt and reuse this domed cathedral last year. But Emmett's not giving it up. Yesterday, he led the press on a tour of the Astrodome to introduce his own plan to restore it: By creating the world's largest indoor park.
This isn't the first scheme mounted by preservationists who see a future for the dome. Last month, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and the Houston Texans introduced a plan to mostly demolish the Astrodome and replace it with a tiny Astrodome. The design, as conceived by the architecture firm Gensler would preserve the ribs of the Astrodome, doing away with the walls as well as the dome itself.
It appears that Judge Emmett didn't look too kindly on the tiny Astrodome idea. While he didn't introduce any designs of his own during the presser, the Houston Chronicle reports, he dismissed concepts that he felt did not convey the original intent of the Astrodome. "Rather than try to convert the Dome into something it was never intended to be, I think it's time to look back to the vision of Judge (Roy) Hofheinz," he told reporters.
The issue with this originalist approach, of course, is that the Astrodome was designed to host football and baseball games, and neither the Titans nor the Astros (nor the Texans) are moving back in any time soon. As my colleague Mark Byrnes illustrates, the stadium has been put to all sort of uses over the years, even as a refugee shelter during Hurricane Katrina. But none of these seem like prudent uses today.
Never mind the utility question: If Judge Emmett wants Houston to keep the Astrodome, Houston is keeping the Astrodome. The justice is the highest elected official in the county; as his office told The Dallas Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster, Emmett "absolutely opposes" demolition. That's why there are no plans in the offing to raze it. In calling upon The Judge (that would be Roy Hofheinz), Emmett is summoning an ally that cannot be defeated by mortal developers.
Last November, Houstonites voted down a plan that would've repurposed the Astrodome as a flexible venue for conventions, concerts, and more. Judge Emmett's fall-back plan is a decent one, though it rings of resignation, as if all the better options have been exhausted.
In fact, "urban park" is an idea that's so broad that it's hard to rally behind. "World's largest indoor park" doesn't mean anything at all, since so few parks are indoors (although "world's largest" befits both the Astrodome and the great state of Texas). What the Astrodome needs now is an ally and a contest.
The proposal to turn the High Line into the urban park that it is today didn't emerge fully formed from a planner's head. Instead, two Chelsea residents, Joshua David and Robert Hammond, tossed around the idea of doing something with the expired piece of infrastructure in community meetings long enough that they won over some influential friends—namely, Diane von Furstenberg and her husband, Barry Diller.
The nonprofit Friends of the High Line then launched an "ideas" competition, which is a crafty way to get a lot of architects to work for you for virtually nothing. (Seriously: The contest garnered 720 entries, from which a jury picked 4 winners, who got cash, plus 3 awards, 11 honorable mentions, and 65 jury prizes—none of which turned into the design for the High Line.) The buzz about the High Line Park helped its founders to raise more than $150 million, three times what New York City gave for the project.
The Astrodome has a plenty strong ally in Judge Emmett. If he wanted the stadium demolished, it'd likely be gone already. But why would he? The Astrodome is a compelling piece of architecture, a true Texas gemstone. "There may be no piece of architecture more quintessentially American than the Astrodome," writes Christopher Hawthorne, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times. Still, saving the Astrodome might require architects and judges alike to think of it as an antiquated piece of infrastructure—and then let their imaginations run wild.