HOUSTON — Where have you gone, Evel Knievel?
When the Houston Astrodome's climate-controlling doors opened on April 9, 1965, and 42,876 wide-eyed spectators watched Mickey Mantle crush a home run in an otherwise meaningless exhibition baseball game, the stadium was dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World." It was a title born of Texas bravado, and the building came to embody the big, preposterous thinking -- sending a NASA rocket to the moon, building a mammoth port 30 miles inland -- that has made Houston one of the nation's largest and most innovative cities.
But the world's first domed, air-conditioned stadium, where America was introduced to the then-startling concepts of fake grass and watching baseball indoors, has been eclipsed. This summer, Houston is in the grips of a debate over how to save the Astrodome, or whether to bother.
As civic leaders, architects and activists weigh a spectrum of possibilities, from tearing down the dome to refurbishing it into a mammoth indoor park, an awkward question has emerged: Is the Astrodome an architectural wonder? Or is it a relic, no more an architectural wonder than the have-a-nice-day smiley face is a work of classical art?
Houston is enjoying a remarkable run of professional-sports stadium development. When the Toyota Center, the NBA Rockets' new home, opens in September, it will mark the third major sports facility to open here in four years, following Minute Maid Park, home of the Astros, and Reliant Stadium, the $449-million monument to Texas football.
What the Astrodome has to offer now are memories -- Knievel jumping his motorcycle over 13 cars, Billie Jean King beating Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes," Frank Sinatra handing a single rose to an adoring fan after singing a tribute to the Apollo 11 astronauts. The new developments are graced with more practical assets in today's economy: plush corporate suites, wide concourses, gourmet restaurants and, in two cases, retractable roofs.
The dome, once the epicenter of Houston's civic life and public image, sits vacant and silent. Its AstroTurf, the original, is curling at the edges. Its air conditioners, famously capable of circulating 2.5 million cubic feet of air each minute, are silent, except during the occasional monster truck rally or private party.
Still, with surprising urgency for a city that typically views the destruction of buildings and tradition as an expression of free enterprise, preservationists are seizing on the dome as a civic cause. The redevelopment of the Astrodome is a chance, many here believe, to reclaim Houston's tradition of entrepreneurial imagination -- a notion that is traced back to the city's origins, when two brothers convinced businessmen that mosquito-ridden swampland was a fine investment.
Texas writer Larry McMurtry once described the Astrodome as rising "soothingly above the summer heat haze like the working end of a gigantic roll-on deodorant." Larry Albert, a local architect, knows that many see the dome as a white elephant. But it's Houston's white elephant, he says, and an important landmark.
"We are in a low-lying, often-flooded, sweltering, soggy coastal plain where the whole idea of development is a strange proposition," he said.
"This is a town which, in my mind, is focused on making life possible where it might not seem obvious. If you accept that as the secret mission of Houston, it becomes entirely clear that the Astrodome is not just a big baseball stadium, not just the first indoor major-league venue, not just a gigantic air-conditioned space, but in its spirit and in its intentions really symbolizes everything that Houston strives to be."
Two years ago, Albert took part in a one-day architectural "charrette," a design symposium assembled in Houston to come up with unusual ideas for the redevelopment of the Astrodome. Albert and an associate came up with "Astrocity" -- a domed, pedestrian city that would include houses, schools, parks, cafes and offices and would be connected to downtown by light rail.
The charrette marked the informal beginning of a spate of proposals from the public. Some want to turn the Astrodome into the world's largest greenhouse. Others want to build a giant fitness park replete with kayaking courses -- even to flood its field, a la the Roman Colosseum, for boat races.
The Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., the government agency charged with managing and developing the complex that includes the Astrodome, has decidedly more conventional plans in mind.
The agency recently put out a request for proposals to begin determining the fate of the dome, and it is weighing seven ideas.
That process has been highly criticized in Houston, partly because it was rushed, but largely because it was open only to companies with vast redevelopment experience. The proposals, all sides agree, would likely limit the redevelopment of the Astrodome to a "mixed-use" project, including a hotel, office and potentially some retail space.