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Why the Astrodome is worth saving

Critic's Notebook: Houston is deciding whether to invest in Astrodome's future. If Proposition 2 fails, the stadium could be razed soon. The venue should be preserved.

November 05, 2013|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

HOUSTON — Forget Monticello or the Chrysler building: There may be no piece of architecture more quintessentially American than the Astrodome.

Widely copied after it opened in 1965, it perfectly embodies postwar U.S. culture in its brash combination of Space Age glamour, broad-shouldered scale and total climate control.

It also offers a key case study in how modern architecture treated the natural world — and how radically the balance of power in that relationship has shifted over the last half-century.

Domed stadiums once provided a symbol of how eager American architects were to completely seal their buildings off from nature. Now they suggest the essential futility of that effort.

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The Astrodome, for all that rich history, has languished empty, unused and threatened with demolition for nearly five years.

On Tuesday voters in Harris County, which includes Houston, will decide whether to raise $217 million to save the stadium and turn it into a multipurpose event center. If the measure fails, it could be razed within a few months.

The brainchild of a colorfully shrewd former Houston mayor and county judge, Roy C. Hofheinz, the Astrodome opened on April 9, 1965, for an exhibition game between the Astros, an expansion baseball team awarded to Houston three years earlier, and the New York Yankees. President Lyndon B. Johnson watched the game from Hofheinz's suite. The Oilers played pro football there from 1968 to 1996.

The Astrodome was designed by Houston architects Hermon Lloyd and W.B. Morgan in collaboration with local firm Wilson, Morris, Crain and Anderson. Partial design credit should also go to the inventor and polymath Buckminster Fuller, who was experimenting with dome construction at the time and gave Hofheinz early architectural advice.

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The Astrodome's exterior is wrapped in a steady, repeating rhythm of slender columns, the space between them filled with concrete screens in a delicate diamond-shaped pattern. Seen from the parking lot outside, the dome resembles more than a few lightly ornamented postwar buildings around the country, including William Pereira's Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which opened the same year.

The playing surface is sunk 30 feet below ground, keeping the stadium's exterior profile surprisingly modest.

But inside it was a revelation from the start. The roof span of 642 feet created the biggest single room ever built. The temperature was kept in the low 70s.

And the air was not just cool. It was dry, a great relief for Houstonians used to suffering through summertime baseball games on steamy, buggy nights. At the small temporary stadium where the team played while the Astrodome was under construction, you could buy fly swatters at the concession stands.

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Countless design details also suggested Houston's interest, four years after John F. Kennedy announced he wanted to put a man on the moon, in transforming itself from "Bayou City" to "Space City." Groundskeepers wore astronaut suits. The female ushers were known as "Spacettes."

There were also hints of a Cold War outlook in the building's heft and seeming impenetrability. The stadium was part spaceship, part bunker.

That first season, in 1965, the Astros played on real grass. But the sunshine streaming through the Lucite panels in the roof created a glare that was distracting to fans and especially to outfielders trying to catch fly balls. The panels were painted over. The grass died.

The team asked Monsanto about using the company's new synthetic grass, called "Chemgrass," for the 1966 season. Monsanto officials renamed the material Astroturf and sold it under that name around the world.

There were echoes in the design of earlier architecture, but the Astrodome's attitude was wholly modern and forward-looking. The Pantheon in Rome, the touchstone for all domed architecture, has an open oculus. On rainy days its floor is wet.

At the Astrodome there was no such negotiation between structure and weather. Climate was something American architecture, by the 1960s, had decided it could banish altogether, render obsolete.

In recent years, however, the symbolism of domed architecture has been turned inside out. A building type once synonymous with confidence and American engineering prowess is now more closely associated with environmental anxiety.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina battered the Louisiana Superdome, built in the 1970s in New Orleans using the Astrodome as a blueprint, tearing open its tightly sealed roof and pouring rain and misery on the storm victims seeking shelter below. Soon many of those evacuees were bused west to Houston, where they spent two weeks sleeping on cots inside the Astrodome.

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