Texas State Library and Archives Commission

A THF SUPPORTED PROJECT

Saving an Iconic Mid-Century Modern Landmark

When the Houston Astrodome was built by Harris County in 1964, its architectural engineering signaled a new era in sports and entertainment venues. A prominent local judge deemed the building “the eighth wonder of the world.” With a dome spanning 642 feet, the 18-story multipurpose stadium was the first of its kind—a climate-controlled indoor arena with 60,000 seats. When the doors opened in 1965, the stadium was home to the National Football League’s Houston Oilers and Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros. The arena was also the site for headline events, including the 1969 “All-Star Tribute to the Apollo 11 Astronauts,” following Neil Armstrong’s history-making moon walk, and the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match between Bobbie Riggs and Billie Jean King. The 1992 Republican National Convention was held at the Houston stadium, and 13 years later, it offered a place of refuge for Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

By 2009, however, numerous factors, including the loss of the city’s NFL and MLB franchises (in 1996 and 2000 respectively), led to the building’s closure. The landmark had fallen into disrepair, declared unfit for occupancy, and left vacant, its future unknown. In 2013, the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP) added the Astrodome to its annual list of America’s endangered historic sites. The organization then worked with a coalition of state and local preservation partners to lobby voters to approve a $217 million bond referendum to renovate and redevelop the stadium. That effort met with failure, perhaps in part due to the still-ongoing debate on whether the Astrodome, because of its mid-20th century construction, merited historic status and protection. Shortly after that defeat, in a February 2014 CNN online news article, Stephanie K. Meeks, National Trust for Historic Preservation president, remarked on the importance of ensuring the Houston landmark’s future:

Many people perceive places built during living memory… differently than they do older places, and too often value them less. We see more and more midcentury icons slowly fading away until demolition seems inevitable…we must preserve these Modernist buildings not only because they represent America’s ingenuity and space-age determination, but because they challenge—and expand—our sense of what is worth saving in this country.

Preservation efforts persisted, and in 2014 the National Park Service added the Astrodome to the National Register of Historic Places, making state and federal tax credits available for its rehabilitation. Significantly, the NRHP listing was essential to acquiring a State Antiquities Landmark (SAL) designation for Houston’s endangered cultural treasure. This protective measure “stipulates a historic property cannot be removed, altered, damaged, salvaged, or excavated without a permit from the Texas Historical Commission.” In January 2017, the THC extended SAL status to the Astrodome. The announcement came on the heels of last year’s approval by Harris County commissioners for a more modest redevelopment project to revitalize the aging stadium. The renovation plan, at a cost of $105 million, includes raising the floor of the Astrodome 30 feet to allow for construction of a two-level underground parking garage. In an October 2016 article for Curbed (an online housing industry related news magazine), Judge Ed Emmet, a Harris county commissioner, commented that the addition of 1,400 vehicle spaces will make the venue more appealing for private investment or to future tenants. Additionally, he said that the additional parking would generate much-needed revenue for upkeep as additional plans for the building’s rehabilitation and reuse moving forward.—Pamela Murtha

Astrodome in Houston, Texas