NOTHING DEPRECIATES LIKE a marvel. When the Houston Astrodome opened in 1965, it was heralded as the "Eighth Wonder of the World," the first indoor multipurpose stadium, a gleaming coliseum fit for the space age and its capital city. The Astrodome's soaring roof, rising 208 feet above the playing surface, was a miracle of structural engineering, a modern monument to possibility. Fans who had watched the expansion Colt .45s through three brutally muggy outdoor seasons now cheered the Astros in air-conditioned comfort. The baseball was still terrible, but at least the mosquitoes had a harder time interrupting it.
Today, only 48 years later, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has placed the Astrodome on its short list of the most endangered places in America. In November a $217 million bond measure that would have allowed Harris County, the stadium's owner, to renovate narrowly failed. Several thousand of the Astrodome's orange seats have since been sold, and in mid-December, three of its circular access towers were spectacularly blown up. In the meantime, the rest of the stadium continues to crumble -- its field a rippled, tattered carpet, the dust settling like defeat.
"The conversation has been getting dangerously close to demolition," says Beth Wiedower, the National Trust's senior field officer in Houston. "This is a tough one. But we think there's a way to preserve the history, the architecture and the cultural significance of the Astrodome. I have been amazed by the love for that building. We've got to stand up for it and others like it."
At the local level, the Astrodome now risks vanishing simply because its principal tenants did. The Oilers left for Tennessee and the Texans built Reliant Park next door to guarantee football's bloated return, and the Astros departed for the then-trendy manufactured quirk of Minute Maid Park. (I'm still not over that stupid hill.)
But the Astrodome is also the victim of two larger, national trends: our current distaste for late-modern architecture and the seeming disposability of stadiums, particularly domes with fixed roofs. Several of the Astrodome's spiritual offspring are going or already gone -- the Kingdome in Seattle, the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, the Metrodome in Minneapolis -- and far more storied ballparks and arenas have been demolished at a frenzied rate. Yankee Stadium, Tiger Stadium, Chicago Stadium, Boston Garden, giant after giant has been leveled. The Braves recently announced that they're leaving Turner Field in 2016, only 20 years after it was built. Today there are players who will have longer careers than the fields they call home.
If only by such lunatic measures, the Astrodome is caught in a potentially fatal in-between: It seems hopelessly ancient, curled up in the shadow of its massive, tricked-out neighbor, and yet not ancient (or pretty) enough to be seen as truly historic. Houston's Archaeological and Historical Commission has just begun the process of awarding the Astrodome landmark status, and it's expected to join the National Register of Historic Places this month or next. Those steps may buy one of America's signature stadiums some time, but in the end, nothing ensures that a building stays standing except an owner who wants it to stay standing.
Abandoned stadiums are usually doomed because they were built for a single purpose: holding very large crowds to watch sports. That leaves them too big to turn into something else and too expensive to maintain as museums. And yet the very things that make the Astrodome seem outdated -- its nonretractable roof and the absence of a field under it -- might also make possible its rescue. The defeated Harris County proposition sought to turn the Astrodome into a huge, flexible indoor space. No other American city can offer nine uninterrupted acres and 18 stories of enclosed height without someone telling you to keep off the grass. The Astrodome is as wide open as the future it once foretold.
All that remains to be seen is whether there's someone with the vision to fill it, the beginning, perhaps, of a new respect for 1960s architecture and for the places we used to play. "I still believe there is a developer out there who can save this building," Wiedower says. She believes this because even today, on the eve of its possible end, the Astrodome can still make itself look like the start of something -- built not just to last but also to be first.