How Can Houston Preserve Its Aging Astrodome?

Imagine a football stadium that was so technologically game-changing that it became the model for all future sporting venues ever built. Until it was suddenly abandoned 15 years ago. As part of our series Preservation Battle, we look at significant buildings on the brink of demise—where you've been able to find Houston's Astrodome for quite some time.

The Astrodome was heralded as a modern marvel when it opened in 1965: it was the first enclosed football stadium on the planet. But the sports teams packed up in 1995, leaving its legendary Astroturf behind. Last year, voters turned down a $217 million bond to transform it into a convention center, but the Dome was recently listed to the National Register of Historic Places, which may provide the architectural equivalent of a Hail Mary (although it doesn't protect it completely from demolition).

Even after the vote failed, there has been a strong and vocal group pushing for an adaptive reuse plan for the Astrodome. But what should Houston do with the thing? In this Preservation Battle edition, Beth Wiedower, senior field officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation faces off against Gizmodo urbanism editor Alissa Walker on the fate of a stadium that Texans like to call the Eighth Wonder of the World.

Honor Its Innovation | Beth Wiedower

The Modern design and ingenuity of the Houston Astrodome captivated the world when it opened a half-century ago and continues to inspire spirited debate about its future among Houstonians, as well as architecture lovers, sports fans, and preservationists across the nation. The first domed stadium in the world, the Astrodome showcased Modern architecture on an unprecedented scale and introduced many features that are now commonplace in multi-purpose venues around the world.

How Can Houston Preserve Its Aging Astrodome?

The same innovation used to build the Astrodome will be needed to re-imagine and revitalize the venue. Many different options have been considered over the past decade for the site's reuse. Some of the options that have been proposed include an indoor, climate-controlled movie production set; an indoor amusement park; a parking garage; a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) educational facility and museum highlighting Houston's role in the development of the United States space program, energy exploration and extraction, and medical advancements.

Developing and implementing a reuse that doesn't drain public coffers, if a public project, or a reuse that could be productive and income-generating, if a private project, is a challenge that preservationists, developers, and local public officials continue to grapple with. Breathing new life into the massive space that is the Astrodome will require a reuse that satisfies these requirements while protecting and highlighting the design and engineering that make the Dome significant.

How Can Houston Preserve Its Aging Astrodome?

The Dome Mobile toured the area with information on proposals for reuse, like this commercial development

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, local preservation and design groups, elected officials and adaptive reuse advocates mounted a campaign in 2013 in support of a public referendum to fund revitalization of the Astrodome. The National Trust and preservation partners brought a mobile engagement vehicle, known as the Dome Mobile, to the public to help raise awareness about the site and celebrate its significance. Our strategy of connecting people to the structure based on emotion and experience, instead of architecture, dictated our campaign outreach and messaging. After the referendum was narrowly defeated in November, something interesting and unexpected happened.

News reports and articles popped up in local, national and international media chiding Harris County voters for not recognizing the significance of the Astrodome as an important piece of modern architecture. Touting the dilemma faced by modernist buildings across the country, these articles elevated the Astrodome as a symbol of the Modern movement and why preservationists need to stand up for these present-day "painted ladies" and protect them for future generations. This is resonating in a city where newer is better and a limited number of buildings make it past the 50-year mark.

How Can Houston Preserve Its Aging Astrodome?

Keeping the Dome for emotional reasons wasn't enough for Houston voters

Surprised? We were. Current conversations about the fate of the Astrodome, from elected leaders to local preservation organizations to ordinary citizens, are broader in scope now and include an element of reverence for the design and construction methods employed just 49 years ago. Currently, the National Trust is encouraging the public to contact Harris County officials and advocate for reuse of the Dome.

Our tactic to focus only on the emotional appeal of the Astrodome wasn't enough. But when combined with more traditional tools in our preservation toolbox—employing architectural merit and significance—the strategy is keeping hope alive for future reuse of the Dome. Lesson learned.

It will be a combination of tried and true preservation advocacy tactics as well as the innovative engagement campaigns and alternative appeals that will guide us in saving the Modernist built environment in the years to come.

Space City, Here We Come | Alissa Walker

Normally, in a situation like this, I would side with any choice made by the voters in a public referendum. The people have spoken, and they want to blow it up. But we all know Texans don't necessarily appreciate the value of their architectural gems. So we have to take a more macro look at the situation in a way that will appeal to those same voters: How can the Astrodome make Houston feel good—fast?

Let me back up a minute here. Houston is famous for being something of a nightmare for planning and development. The fact that they'd ask citizens to help decide if a building's worth saving, after all these years, is kind of hilarious—as if their opinions suddenly mattered. This is not a bad thing: Houston has never really cared what people think of it. But any kind of pandering to appeal to design "merit" or "significance" is not going to work on these people. This is not a culture that feels sympathetic to history.

The Astrodome is just sitting there, a potential moneymaker. But the proposal voters considered for a convention center? How boring! That doesn't dream big, like Texans should.

How Can Houston Preserve Its Aging Astrodome?

Yuck, who wants another bland, horrible convention center?

Around the time that the Astrodome was built, Houston blossomed from a city largely considered to be a cultural backwater into an international destination. But it was not only the stadium that rocketed it to fame: It was the arrival of the space program in town. Oddly enough, both institutions are at a crossroads at the moment.

As the federal government defunds the space program, Houston stands to lose more than just cultural cachet. In fact, the recent government shutdown illustrated what will happen to the Johnson Space Center and Houston's economy in general as NASA continues to scale back operations. There needs to be another effort to not only capitalize on these important parts of the city's legacy, but encourage the next generation of space exploration.

The answer, which will solve both quandaries: Houston needs to puts the "Astro" back in the Astrodome.

How Can Houston Preserve Its Aging Astrodome?

Satellite view of the Astrodome area, with vacant lots adjacent primed for development

My idea is called Space City: A comprehensive, privately funded space exploration experience in and around the Astrodome. Dubbed after the nickname bestowed upon Houston when NASA arrived, Space City will serve as an expanded educational center, entertainment complex, and theme park. Corporate sponsors like Boeing and Honeywell will help defray the costs to the city and voters, and retired NASA employees can serve as docents and staff. Virtual reality and gaming platforms that also train astronauts and space tourists will allow the most immersive interactive space "journeys" on Earth. Part of the experience will be an entertainment center similar to The Science and Entertainment Exchange, where scientists and astronaut advise producers to ensure accurate portrayal of space exploration in films. Houston gets Hollywood production money, and visitors to Space Center can watch movies like Gravity II being made.

As for the interior of the dome, which needs the most help, Houston can turn that into a globally enticing attraction without much work. The city is (rightly) outraged that New York City and Los Angeles received decommissioned space shuttles to put on display, when the city that's probably the most integral to the space program got NOTHING. Could there be a more appropriate venue to house the next gargantuan NASA relic to be retired? The Astrodome would not need excessive renovations to serve as what's essentially an aircraft hangar. The famous animated scoreboard becomes reconfigured to report how many humans are currently in space.

How Can Houston Preserve Its Aging Astrodome?

Plenty of room for a space shuttle or two

A proposal like this could boost Houston's pride in the same way the original Astrodome did back in the 1960s, not only rescuing a futuristic structure but also bolstering and strengthening the presence of NASA. It will help the city to once again stand tall, towering above every other city in the union. An important structure is saved, but for the right reasons. Houston no longer has a problem.

Top image by EricEnfermero

Who's right? Who's wrong? Got a better idea? Leave it in the comments.