THE ASTRODOME’S FIRST SOLUTION TO ITS CAN’T-SEE-THE-BALL PROBLEM Before players had that problem losing fly balls in the glare, before a portion of the skylights were painted over, before anyone in Houston had ever considered replacing the outfield grass with something called AstroTurf, there was another system installed in the Astrodome meant to help baseball players keep their eyes on the ball. The Houston Chronicle‘s special section on the Harris County Domed Stadium — on the occasion of its 50th anniversary (today) and birthday party open house (tonight) — includes a reprint (PDF) of the same newspaper’s Astrodome extra from April 8, 1965, the day before opening day. And featured on page 62 is a short preview of the stadium’s space-age air-cleaning technology: “An unusual Honeywell-engineered ultraviolet sensor will run a continual check on the transparency of the air. If it gets murky — from dust or tobacco smoke — the system will signal stadium engineers to open a battery of cupola exhaust dampers.
Because air cleaners continuously scrub the air electronically, then pass it through special charcoal filters to sieve out any odors, air inside the stadium normally will be fresher and cleaner than the air outside. ‘In fact, it should be the cleanest air in all Texas,‘ says Lamar Bordelon, Honeywell project engineer on the stadium job.
The Honeywell system has an ultraviolet lamp underneath the seats along the third-base line, focused on an ultraviolet sensor in similar position along the first-base line, 700 feet across the stadium. These continuously indicate the transparency of the air between them on a meter located on the control center. Any time the transparency of the air drops to the point where a player would have a hard time seeing a baseball in play 350 feet away, a warning light flashes on.” [Houston Chronicle] Photo: Russell Hancock
JUST A BUNCH OF GUYS HANGING OUT ON THE ASTRODOME ROOF Astrodome security wasn’t the tightest during the Rodeo of 2012, it appears. That’s when builder Russell Hancock snuck inside the unused stadium and sent photos of some of the sorry scenes he found there to Swamplot — sparking a spate of media interest in the long-ignored venue. But Hancock wasn’t the Astrodome’s only unauthorized visitor that year. Brewskies in hand, 4 dudes with cameraphones also snuck into the structure, though it appears they spent much of their time exploring the structure’s peripheral spaces. Over this past weekend, one of the 4 posted an album of pix from their years-ago nighttime venture, the stars of which are the explorers themselves; with blanked-out faces, they’re seen hanging out in locker rooms, hiding in ice machines, operating the scoreboard controls, and pretending to tend bar in an upper-level suite. The highlight, though, is clearly the roofwalk: “After walking around on the top floor,” the anonymous poster writes, “I decided we should try to find our way onto the roof. Not kidding at all — the first door I opened, what looked like a closet door, had a ladder in it. So of course we climbed that shit. It went up about 15 ft. to a hatch that wasn’t locked. So we popped our head out and there was the roof. To the Astrodome. It was surreal. We started to climb up the sky lights to try to get to the top, but about 20—30 ft. up we realized that was probably not the best idea.” [imgur] Photos: Astrodome713
What’s next in Astrodome beauty treatments after the unused county stadium’s powerwashing late last year? How about a little color magic? As noted by the KHOU chopper sent out to record the incident earlier this week (which produced the image above), test paint patches recently appeared at the top of the vacant structure’s walls. In concert with the removal of the eighties-add-on stair towers and the latest grime-spray efforts, the painting of a dark bluish-black color on the upper sections of wall just below the roof would help return the stadium exterior to something closer to its original 1965 appearance.
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THE NEXT BIG EVENT PLANNED FOR THE ASTRODOME WILL BE A WASH When was the last time anyone bothered to clean the exterior of the Astrodome? Long enough ago to merit media coverage for word that the Dome’s caretakers have now decided to do something about the building’s growing exterior grunge. The Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation, having presided for 15 years over the former sports stadium’s steady decay, is about to embark on its first notable Dome maintenance operation since firefighters used fans to blow smoke out of the building in the aftermath of a 2011 transformer fire in the vacant facility. With approval from the Texas Historical Commission, reports Fox 26’s Mark Berman, the agency will award local building restoration and pressure-washing practitioners Green Team Services $63,800 to clean the outside of the structure. [My Fox Houston; previously on Swamplot] Photo: Green Team Services
CURIOUS POLL PUSHERS WANT TO KNOW: SHOULD THE COUNTY SPEND ANY AMOUNT IT WANTS ON AN ASTRODOME REDO? The last time a concrete proposal to spend public money to repurpose the Astrodome was on the ballot, Harris County taxpayers voted it down. So how hard could it be to come up with a new poll showing potential voters aren’t especially eager to shell out for the latest floated idea, to turn the public facility into a giant indoor park — about which no details, price tag, or even feel-good drawings have yet been released? Maybe harder than you might think: In stories about a survey sponsored by KHOU and Houston Public Media whose results were released yesterday, a few news outlets did produce dutiful variants of a “Taxpayers Oppose Money for Astrodome” headline. But coming to that conclusion from the actual data collected in the survey might have been a bit of a stretch. Here’s the somewhat ambiguous wording of the question presented, with no context, to likely voters in the coming election: “Harris County proposes turning the Astrodome into an indoor park. Should the taxpayers of Harris County spend any amount to make the Astrodome into an indoor park if no private investors want to fund the entire project?” 31 percent said yes, 51 percent said no, and 17 percent of respondents said they didn’t know. The subset of respondents who thought they were being asked if they’d be willing to give county government a blank check for a plan they’ve never seen wasn’t broken out separately. [Houston Chronicle; KHOU; Houston Public Media; Astrodome coverage on Swamplot] Photo: Russell Hancock
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett’s new “not fully hashed out” plan for reusing the Astrodome is to turn the structure into the world’s largest indoor public park and recreation area. The park might incorporate a number of public institutions and museums within it. Plus: a pavilion for music and other events, and sports facilities such as archery ranges and hiking and biking trails, an archery center, and a large open green space. The fully air-conditioned park would be open to the public every day — except when used by the Rodeo and conferences such as the OTC.
Will Harris County citizens support turning the Astrodome into a park? Strangely, the best evidence that a majority would favor it may come from a recent survey commissioned by 2 organizations that have been trying very hard to get the building torn down.
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Texans and Rodeo Fans on Board?
JUDGE EMMETT SAYS HE’LL REVEAL A ‘MAJOR’ PROPOSAL FOR REUSING THE ASTRODOME TOMORROW For a good while now, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett has been dropping hints about a new proposal to renovate the Astrodome. He’s set to reveal a few details about it tomorrow afternoon, after he holds a press conference set up in a “special little section” of the Astrodome made safe for media attendees. “Emmett has been in discussions with a series of elected officials, stakeholders and interested parties in recent weeks, laying out the general concept for an innovative reuse of the world’s first domed stadium,” a press release from the judge’s office declares. “All [the judge’s spokesperson] could tell me is that it’s ‘public use,’ tweets the Chronicle‘s Kiah Collier. [County Judge Ed Emmett; previously on Swamplot] Photo: Joe Stinebaker
The inside of the Astrodome has been closed to the general public since 2008, when inspectors revoked its certificate of occupancy after discovering numerous code violations. Four years later, Swamplot’s publication of reader Russell Hancock’s snuck pics of the structure’s desolate innards spurred several local reporters to request their own tours of the structure. Later, the building’s caretakers offered up a few rounds of media tours of the dilapidated stadium on their own, leading up to last November’s defeat of a bond issue that would have paid for extensive renovations to the building. In advance of the vote, and then again shortly after, the Astrodome’s seating and other furnishings were removed and put up for sale.
But since the seat sell-off, the public hasn’t had a chance to see how the inside of the vacant sports stadium appears with the earth-tone rainbows painted in plastic backrest that once lined its upper decks stripped out and sold off. What does the inside of the Astrodome look like, now that it’s a whole lot less colorful, and pretty much standing-room only?
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The End of the Rainbows
BUILDING THE BIGGEST LIVING ROOM IN THE WORLD From the prologue to The Astrodome: Building a Domed Spectacle, James Gast’s just-published history of the origins of the Harris County Domed Stadium: “The Astrodome is not a distinctive work of architecture. It is certainly not a bad building, nor is it an exceptionally beautiful one. The Astrodome ended its days as a major league venue in 1999, but it remains a uniquely inﬂuential building. On the simplest level, it changed the game of baseball and — in the opinion of legions of self-described purists — not for the better. If you happen to be a student of the game, you know that the artificial turf first introduced at the Astrodome changed the way baseball was played, placing a new emphasis on speed and spawning a generation of light-hitting speedsters playing on artificial turf fields with deep fences.
Off the field, the Astrodome’s creature comforts and barrage of electronic media forever changed the way the game is viewed. The Dome rose alongside the growing inﬂuence of television, and stood as a response to a commercial threat posed by television. To lure paying customers away from their TV sets and into the ballpark, stadiums needed to deliver comfort and amenities on par with the spectators’ living rooms. The Dome competed with television by emulating it: a comfortable seat, good food, and frequent electronic distractions. If, while at Phoenix’s Chase field, you find yourself engrossed in a video on the 6,200-square—foot high-definition scoreboard while enjoying curried chicken tacos with mint-marinated cucumbers and yogurt on top of scallion pancakes, you can thank — or curse — the Astrodome.” [Astrodome Book]
UNMASKING THE CRAFTY NSA, NFL PLAN TO TAKE AWAY OUR PRECIOUS ASTRODOME AND MONITOR YOUR PHONE CALLS Using techniques, he explains, from “The Consipiracy Theory Style Manual” (“I used as many facts as I could come up with, then I made up a few more”), Houston Chronicle penpal Dave Nagel notes the striking similarities between the reconstructed ring of drive-thru concrete pillars meant to be built as part of a memorial to the Astrodome in a proposal released last week by the Rodeo and the Houston Texans and the circular antenna array called the AN/FLR-9 built in several locations during the Cold War to support U.S. intelligence operations. And concludes: “[I]t’s obvious. The National Security Agency has plans to construct a listening post here in Houston. We know the Supreme Court says the police cannot grab cell phones without a warrant, but now the NSA will just grab all the signals emanating from Texas and will process them from the new intel center at Reliant/NRG. By the way, in military parlance, NRG is National Reconnaissance Group!
I believe the NSA is planning to collect intelligence on all known and suspected Republicans here in Texas, and turn it over to the Administration. Every proper conspiracy theorist will say YES! Or, does the NSA plan to eavesdrop on all those nefarious and dangerous children pouring across the border from Honduras and Guatamala? If you have ever worked in a school, you know how dangerous children are, especially ones without parental supervision! Children carry cell phones. Cell phones transmit and receive signals. Do you understand now?”
A chilling prospect! But what’s the upshot? Continues Nagel: “[I]f the NSA wants to run an intelligence gathering station at Reliant/NRG, then we won’t have to use local tax money to tear down the dome, we can let NSA do it with their classified budget!” [Houston Chronicle ($); previously on Swamplot] Photo of AN/FLR-9 radio direction finder at United States Army Security Agency Field Station Augsburg: Wikimedia Commons/Chaddy [license]
Swamplot will dig into some of the more entertaining and eye-opening details of the proposal later. But in the meantime, before folks go around shouting “heck, yeah!”, hyperventilating, or considering it all but a done deal, you might want to make note of a few circumstances surrounding the release of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and Houston Texans‘ 37-page illustrated guide to spending $66 million of somebody’s money to tear down the Astrodome and build a memorial park and “Hall of Fame” in its place.
The proposal was leaked to reporters yesterday — likely before the Rodeo and the Texans had planned, a source tells Swamplot. (A sample “huh?” slide from it is illustrated above.) Nevertheless, the release marks the latest evolution in the 2 organizations’ willingness to publicly acknowledge their (likely longstanding) role as the foremost opponents of preserving the Astrodome in any form. (Last year the Rodeo and the Texans released a cost estimate for turning the Dome into a parking lot.) Whether this is a concerted strategy in the organizations’ campaign to kill the Dome or a fumble, it does signal a possible risk for them: What would happen if the until-now-growing sense among many Houstonians that everything possible has been tried and somehow mysteriously “won’t work” (blow up the place already, I’m tired of hearing about it!) gave way to a realization that the same 2 parties may have, in fact, been responsible for bungling, blocking, discouraging, sabotaging, or outright vetoing every single proposal for saving or revamping the Astrodome over the last dozen years? Would it kill all the seeming public-sentiment victories they’ve achieved so far?
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Dome-Be-Gone for $66 Million
One of the largest rhetorical weapons in the arsenal regularly wielded by proponents of repurposing or demolishing the Astrodome over the last several years has been a brutal financial factoid regularly drawn into arguments over the Houston landmark’s future. How much money in maintenance and debt-service costs have county taxpayers had to spend just to keep the retired sports stadium around and rotting? Why $2.4 million or so each year, claimed news report after news report after editorial after news report. Like the once-record-breaking 642-ft. clear span inside, it was just one of those things people who were paying attention knew.
But that figure isn’t accurate, Harris County’s budget chief now says. And at a meeting called by Judge Ed Emmett this week, Bill Jackson tried to set the record straight: First, he said, the Astrodome is “essentially debt free“; all but 5 percent of outstanding debt payments connected to the facility stem from work done in 2002 and 2003 — after the Dome had been retired from professional sports — to prepare the larger park for the Texans to use it. (The total amount of that remaining debt, according to a Houston Chronicle recalculation earlier this year, is $6 million.) Using the accounting principle of “first in, first out,” this means that all debts attributable to the Dome itself have now been paid for, Jackson said.
How about maintenance and insurance costs, then?
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Now Down to $171K a Year, Give or Take?
IT’S GETTING A NAME CHANGE, BUT THE ASTRODOME WILL STILL BE RELIANT ON COUNTY COMMISSIONERS TO REMAIN STANDING The Houston Chronicle‘s Kiah Collier has what appears to be the first official confirmation that the name change NRG Energy plans for Reliant Stadium and Reliant Park is meant to extend to the Astrodome and its signage as well. The Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. gave the go-ahead to today to rename it all and put up new signs. Say hello to NRG Stadium, NRG Park, NRG Center, and — yes — NRG Arena and NRG Astrodome. [Kiah Collier on Twitter; previously on Swamplot] Photo of demolished ticket booth at Reliant Astrodome: Jim Ellwanger [license]
In what appears to be a bid to get more people to pronounce Houston’s major industry in a stilted quasi-drawl, the parent company of Reliant Energy has decided to rebrand Reliant Stadium and Reliant Park. The Houston Chronicle‘s Kiah Collier reports that henceforth (or after a vote by county commissioners at least) they shall be known as NRG Stadium and NRG Park. Collier’s sources don’t seem to have mentioned whether the name-change will result in similar switches for the other structures in the sports-and-convention complex, labeled the Reliant Center, Reliant Arena, and Reliant Astrodome since 2002.
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The New Old Home of the Texans, Etc.
THE HOBBLED DOME MAKES HISTORY Psssssssst! Don’t tell anyone, but the Astrodome was quietly listed on the National Register of Historic Places earlier this month. That means some future use for the almost-50-year-old structure might qualify for a few federal and state tax breaks, and that permits for mining coal on the property now might be a little more difficult to obtain. Also, there’ll likely be some sort of plaque. [National Parks Service, via Anna Mod; more info; previously on Swamplot] Photo: Russell Hancock