Thursday, October 20, 2005

Ode to the Astrodome

This is something I put together for a talk a few years ago --- I thought I'd resurrect it and add a few hyperlinks now that the Astros are actually in the World Series!

It was the Taj Mahal of sports, the 8th Wonder of the world, called the “Can-Do Cathedral” in response to those who said it could never be built. This vast structure was large enough to comfortably house an 18 story building. It was here that Ali danced, Elvis sang, Billy Graham preached, Evel Knievel jumped over cars on his motorcycle, and Elvin Hayes met Lew Alcindor in an epic college basketball contest. It has hosted polo matches, soccer and ice hockey games, bullfights, auto races, rodeos, conventions, boat shows, and even a little tennis match between a woman and a self-described male chauvinist pig. Robert Altman even made a movie here. It was an unmatched engineering marvel, though not necessarily a beautiful structure; Larry McMurtry once called it “the working end of the world’s largest deodorant stick.”

Under its circular roof lay a beauty parlor, chapel, children’s library and playground, 5 restaurants, a barber shop, a bowling alley, a movie theater, and even a presidential suite appointed with Louis XIVth furniture. Bob hope once said that "if it had a maternity ward and a cemetery, you’d never have to leave.”

Men named Nolan and Earl put opposing players on their behinds here, one with a blistering fastball and the other with a withering stiff-arm that felt like a bolt of lightning. But somehow, no matter who was the star of the event, the building itself was often the top attraction. In its heyday, this structure was unquestionably the most ambitious and forward-thinking project of its kind in the world, described at its opening as “a tribute to the boundless imagination of man” by the Rev. Billy Graham. It was such a phenomenon that within a year of it’s completion, it was the third most visited man-made tourist attraction in the US, trailing only Mt. Rushmore and the Golden Gate Bridge.

But oh, how times have changed. Now, a mere 40 years after it debuted, it is considered a relic, as outdated and useless as a cheap polyester leisure suit, reduced to hosting high school football games and the occasional monster truck show. "It" is the Astrodome, a once proud product of a city with a true can-do spirit, now being replaced by more modern, single-use facilities. While it has been the site of a number of spectacular events, the story of the Astrodome has never been merely one of games and entertainers; it is the story of a remarkable building, and how a self-described huckster born in Beaumont, Texas was able to build it.
Roy was a gifted motivator and speaker even as a young man, and soon made a name for himself in Houston where his family moved in the 1920s. By age 14, he was booking and promoting dance and live music events on his own, driving around town in a garishly decorated Model A to advertise them. Offered a scholarship at the University of Texas at age 16, he chose to stay home and attend Rice Institute due to the untimely death of his father; at the time, Rice offered free tuition to all who were accepted for enrollment. At 18, Roy was awarded the first scholarship ever given by the Houston Law School for his “speaking abilities and other possibilities.” He briefly practiced law, but politics beckoned, however, and Roy became the youngest man elected to the Texas state legislature at age 22. He was flashy and flamboyant, a gifted speaker, a PT Barnum of politics. Here he began cultivating a group of powerful friends in the Democrat party who would become lifelong admirers and supporters – people like John Connally and a young man named Lyndon Baines Johnson. Within 2 years he was elected the youngest county judge in the nation, and the man described as the “Boy Orator” and the “Bayou Buffalo” would be known simply as “The Judge” for the remainder of his life.

A rising star in the Democrat party, he was the campaign manager for his friend LBJ’s ill fated 1941 senate run. However, with the Judge it was hard to tell where politics ended and business began over the next several years; he was skillful at doling out political favors and getting involved with local real estate and other business ventures. He left office at 32 to start a string of radio stations with the aid of wealthy benefactors, and by 37 was a bona fide millionaire. While often described as arrogant and ruthless, even his detractors felt he was very forward thinking, particularly in regards to new business opportunities and promotion ideas. The Judge jumped back into politics in 1952, being elected mayor of Houston with the help of close aides Jack Valenti and eventual Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski. By this time the Judge was used to getting his way, and frequently butted heads with the City Council. He eventually was impeached and lost a special election midway through his second term. By this time, however, he was firmly entrenched in local business, and expanded his empire to include a television station and extensive real estate holdings with the aid of wealthy partner Bob Smith.

By 1960, the Judge was enough of a fixture in Houston political and business dealings that almost anybody with a significant proposal ran it by him first. And so it came to pass that two Houston businessmen, George Kirksey and Craig Cullinan, pitched their idea for a bringing Houston a major league baseball team to Judge Roy. Not only was he interested, he dove in feet first and took control of the idea. Soon the Houston Sports Authority was formed, and eventually the Judge and Bob Smith became essentially the only meaningful partners in the venture.

But the Judge recognized that Houston had a slight climate problem --- unbearable heat and humidity, violent summer weather, and mosquitoes the size of vultures would make the idea of enjoying a major league baseball game in the open air a bit less than desirable. And so the credit for first proposing what would become the Harris County Domed Stadium rightly goes to the Judge, who was also politically savvy enough to sell the idea of public financing for the project. A National League expansion franchise, the Colt .45s, was awarded, and a $22 million tax-supported bond election narrowly passed in 1961.
A site was chosen for the stadium, which just so happened to be on land owned predominantly by the Judge and Bob Smith. It is hard to overestimate the “can-do” attitude present in Houston at the time, with NASA and the burgeoning space program just down the road. But many questioned which was the more outlandish proposition – NASA putting a man on the moon or the Judge managing to build an air-conditioned domed stadium, which could hold 50,000 spectators. Undeterred by these nay sayers, the seven members of the Houston Sports Authority, armed and dressed in cowboy hats, met on the outskirts of downtown Houston on January 3rd, 1962. They drew their Colt .45s and fired them into the dirt to break ground for a building the likes of which had never before been seen.
While the Colt .45s played in a nearby temporary stadium, construction started and a 24 foot deep 700 foot wide hole was dug. Soon, however it was apparent more money was needed. The likelihood of passing a new bond issue was very questionable, so the Judge turned to support from local black leaders, promising the new facility would be fully integrated. The issue narrowly passed and he got the additional $9 ½ million he needed.

Soon the building began to rise – 218 feet in the air with an outer diameter of 710 feet. The dome created a clear span of 642 feet, more than double the size of any previous enclosure; it was the largest open room in the world. The domed roof itself, created by an elaborate series of lamella trusses, sits on a 300 foot tension ring mounted on 72 steel columns, each being capable of supporting 220,000 pounds. 37 separate erection towers resembling oil derricks were needed to put up the steel framework of the roof; these were then removed by lowering all 37 simultaneously 1/16th of an inch at a time until the 9,000 ton roof settled onto the tension ring and support columns like a huge Tupperware lid. 4,596 Lucite panels were installed to let in light, patterned after the Lucite gunner’s dome in the B-17 Flying Fortress. The roof was designed to handle sustained winds of 135 mph with gusts up to 165 mph to keep it from flying off like a gigantic Frisbee during a hurricane. Adjacent to the building was the world’s largest parking lot, built to handle 30,000 cars.
Several things we now take for granted were first used in the Dome. 54 luxury “skyboxes” were built, holding 24 people each, initially leased at $15,000 for 5 years. All fans were treated to plush seats upholstered in just about every color of the rainbow; it was an orgy of color ready-made for the first color television broadcast of a major league baseball game. It was designed from the start as a multi-use facility; seating capacity varied from 54,000 for baseball to 63,000 for football. A 64 foot diameter gondola was suspended from the center of the dome, providing previously unheard of aerial views of games in progress.

The $2 million dollar scoreboard was truly Texan in scope – over 4 stories high, 474 feet long, with over a ½ an acre of programmable lights. With each home run blasted by the home team, the scoreboard operator would unleash the Home Run Spectacular. The wall of lights and speakers would erupt for a full 45 seconds, sending snorting and stomping steers draped with Texas and US flags racing across the screen, followed by cartoon cowboys firing off bullets that ricocheted to and fro. It was as loud as a freight train, and opposing pitchers absolutely hated it.

The Texas A&M agriculture department was enlisted and determined that Bermuda Tiffway grass would flourish in the stadium’s light and humidity. The Judge however was never convinced this would work, and was already looking into what he called “undertaker’s grass” before the dome’s inaugural season. And of course, there was cool refreshing air conditioning powered by equipment that provided 6,600 tons of cooling capacity and moved 2 ½ million cubic feet of air per minute. Given the size of the building and outside conditions, temperatures could vary as much as 40-50 degrees at different levels in the stadium, so a system of multiple separate sensors and controls was established; these were run and adjusted by “The Brain,” a complex system of electronic components made by Honeywell that did the equivalent amount of work as 280 men. This was no small task to accomplish in the early 1960s. As well, a weather station was installed on top of the dome to feed outside climate information to The Brain.
The Dome was finally ready for the beginning of the 1965 baseball season. A new name was needed for the team to reflect the new stadium’s grandeur. Taking a cue from the space program, the Judge decided on the Houston Astros, and soon the name Astrodome was applied to the stadium. All stadium workers wore space-themed uniforms. The groundsdskeepers were called “Earthmen” and wore mock space suits. The official opening night festivities were attended by the Gemini Twins, Gus Grissom and John Young, who had just 3 weeks before been the first astronaut pair sent into space. They came with 21 other astronauts, all of whom were given lifetime passes to Astrodome games. The Judge’s friends and also filed in, including Governor John Connally and President Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson, for whom the presidential suite was specifically built. Celebrities galore filtered through the Judge’s private suite, which was garishly decorated with antiques, numerous television sets, and gold plated toilet fixtures.

Aside from a troubling problem with glare from the Lucite panels during day games, the Astrodome was an unqualified success. As is well known, the panels were painted, the Aggie-approved grass died, and the last 2 weeks of the season were played on spray-painted dirt. The solution devised by the Judge and Monsanto, Astroturf, was finally installed by early morning hours of the opening day of the 1966 season. Monsanto beat the Judge to the punch and quietly registered the name Astroturf, but it took a full 7 years for the product to become profitable. Interestingly, most of the money Monsanto made off of Astroturf came from sales of doormats, not fields, but it became its most widely used trademark.

The Judge eventually surrounded the Astrodome with the Astrohall, several Astrodomain hotels, and the Astroworld theme park. This ultimate promoter and huckster also bought the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, booking it into extended runs in the Dome. As one observer put it, Goldfinger tried to knock off Ft. Knox, while the Judge built his own.

But the Astrodome itself was the Judge’s crowning achievement. When he died in 1982, his long funeral motorcade slowly circled the Dome twice on its way to the cemetery. He had long since given up control of the Astrodomain Complex, the victim of massive debt and the outrageous interest rates of the 1970s.

The Astrodome went through a few facelifts over the years, and a few other domed stadia were built as well. But they were mere imitators. The Astrodome is a true original, not named after a corporation or even the man who built it. There is a building near the Dome that is named after him you may have heard of; the next time you are watching a basketball game broadcast from the University of Houston’s Hofheinz Pavillion, think instead of baseball and the Astrodome, and think of the imagination, drive and vision of a man named Judge Roy Hofheinz.
While the Astrodome may be considered a relic by some, to me it will always stand as a reminder of a time when Americans felt anything dreamed could be made a reality, a time when there were only solutions and no problems, a time when even sophisticated electronic and engineering projects could be assembled in my father’s garage. I have a soft spot in my heart for that time and that building -- you see, my Dad worked for Honeywell to design it's AC, assembled the dome-top weather station and installed it atop the Astrodome (yes, that's really my Dad on top of the Dome in the photo below):
(Much of this info is found in The Grand Huckster: Houston's Judge Roy Hofheinz, Genius of the Astrodome, by Edgar W. Ray. Lots of photos and Astrodome history can be found here.)