Historic 'Eighth Wonder' honored by fans as venue's future remains unclear
By Richard Dean
HOUSTON -- Mickey Mantle hit the first home run at the Astrodome, 50 years ago in an exhibition on April 9, 1965. It was a fitting beginning to the world's first multipurpose, fully air-conditioned sports venue, which would become one of the most distinctive and influential entertainment destinations ever constructed.
It was a glorious occasion that day, 50 years ago. For the first time, the world was seeing the much-anticipated opening of the Astrodome, billed as the "Eighth Wonder of the World."
The brainchild of former Houston Mayor and County Judge Roy Hofheinz, the Astrodome was innovative. It had cushioned seats and spawned AstroTurf in 1966.
But the Astrodome has sat vacant for nearly a decade and its future is uncertain.
On Thursday, the Astrodome, with its 200-foot ceiling, celebrated its 50th birthday. And what a party it was. The Astrodome was alive and frolicking again. The crowd was in excess of 20,000, most coming in support to save the Dome.
"This show of support today is pretty clear that people want to keep the Dome," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said. "We just need to figure out the best thing to do with it."
A majority of the crowd that came out for the free event weren't sure what to do with the Astrodome. They were sure that they didn't want it demolished.
Thursday's party consisted of music, food (Dome Dogs), Astrodome memorabilia and giveaways.
"I wish we could be using the Astrodome for something," said 34-year-old Darnell Lander of Houston. "We need to try and save it at least. This is what made Houston. When everybody came here, they always wanted to see the Astrodome. If they take that away then they are taking a piece of history.''
In January 2014, the Astrodome was added to the U.S. National Register of Historical Places.
The county's latest push is to make it an indoor park.
"Judge Hofheinz's idea was, take an outdoor activity and move it indoors," Judge Emmett said. "We keep that concept. Turn this into a park. We have nine acres [on the Dome floor]. Turn this into green space and a park. And the upper levels can be museums, entertainment venues, restaurants."
Ground was broken to build the Astrodome on Jan. 3, 1962. It was completed in November 1964, six months ahead of schedule at a cost of $35 million by Harris County taxpayers.
"The Dome should remain erect as a symbol of the first architectural feat of its kind," said Larry Dierker, former Astros pitcher, team broadcaster and manager, who was a popular person at Thursday's event. "There were people who said it couldn't be done. I think it's worthy of staying here even if nothing's done with it.
"The ideal solution is what the county judge suggested, that we find some way to use all that air-conditioned indoor space for entertainment for citizens of Houston, because they own it. What form that takes? I don't know. Judge Hofheinz was pretty special to be able to imagine that this could happen. But there has to be another person with the imagination like Judge Hofheinz that will step forward and come up with something that we can all work on and get done."
Houstonians are proud of their Astrodome. The loyalists were out in force Thursday night. Patrons were allowed to walk on the floor of the Astrodome, which was stripped of nearly all its seating. People wearing Astros gear heavily outnumbered people wearing Houston Oilers jerseys. But nearly everyone was taking pictures, taking in the moment, and remembering exciting times from the past.
"The reality is, 50 years ago today, the world of sport changed," Judge Emmett said. "And it changed in this building. And the image of Houston and Harris County changed. If you ask anybody around the world, name a building in Houston, Texas. This is it."
Richard Dean is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.