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Digging Around the All-But-Abandoned Astrodome

Old and in the way, but still magic.
Old and in the way, but still magic.
Photo by Craig Hlavaty

The Reliant Astrodome was -- is -- the Eighth Wonder of the World. Generations of Houston-area kids spent their days dreaming of playing on the field under that massive domed ceiling. It's one of our city's last non-NASA ties to the space program, this UFO-like structure in the middle of a modern commercial and medical infrastructure. And she's dark, full of dust, and ghosts of heroes past, sitting on Loop 610.

Tuesday afternoon the Reliant team allowed a handful of us reporters -- print, blog, radio, and television teams -- to view the rainbow guts of the Houston Astrodome, years dormant, now towered over by Reliant Stadium just a Warren Moon pass to Haywood Jeffires away.

Before we entered, we all signed waivers, since we would be touring a building that is not up to code. Not that it could fall upon us at any moment ("Death by Astrodome" has a fun ring to it) but certain legal precautions must be taken. There is no A/C to speak of, and only minimal lighting. We brought a flashlight and a sweat towel. This is Houston in April after all.

Walking into the Dome, you are greeted by a musty smell, and then your own memories come flooding back. The rainbow seats have a certain way of caressing your eyes. Seeing the old girl devoid of joy, used as a storage facility for random RodeoHouston gear, is a far cry from Biggio, Bagwell, and Cammie on the diamond. The seats are all covered in dust and the ground is littered with fan refuse. A peanut husk here, a receipt there.

The tour made its way to the floor of the Dome, which is where you can fully take in its size. With maybe forty voices jabbering, the silence is still eerie. Looking from where second base or a 50-yard line would be up to the pinnacle of the dome still instills awe. Someone built this. There is football turf laid out on the concrete floor of the Dome, drying out from being flooded by a recent accident in the complex.

Put these seats for sale!
Put these seats for sale!
Photo by Brittanie Shey

Someone dropped a seat near one of the sidelines and it sounded like the crack of a bat, bringing me back to those afternoons spent watching batting practice before Astros games. The sound of a bat hitting a ball had a sound to it in the Dome that you don't hear at Minute Maid.

We made our way to the former Oilers and Astros locker rooms, rusted from years of dormancy. For some reason when I was young I thought that the rooms where these He-Men suited up were bigger than this.

The Astros clubhouse has been trashed by vandals, with broken glass littering the coaches offices. There are cubby holes on one wall where fan mail would go. I smiled at #11. The baseball team had a large training and sports medicine area. There was a green turf running incline, and of course, batting cages, all set off in a cave. Just a few feet away was the door to where the dugout would be now.

It's easy to forget that pro baseball and football haven't been played here in over a decade. There are still Astros and Oilers insignia throughout. The last time I would have stepped in here would have been 2002 to see Bob Dylan at RodeoHouston while Reliant was coming up next door. Old hand-painted beer ads dated back to 1999 seem quaint now. Nary a QR code in sight.

A quick trip into the press area yielded a visit into the old A/V room where all the video tech work went down. So many VHS tapes, and those big nasty ones I have not seen since college. I couldn't find Milo Hamilton's old digs, sadly.

 

A few flights up those rounded ramps we found where the high-rollers and tycoons would watch games from plush boxes. Name plates of sponsor companies filled a box in a darkened corner. A bird carcass sat nearby, trapped in the ramp.

The tour made it into the balcony area, where the rainbow seats are to close out our Dome adventure. Reliant Park General Manager Mark Miller, our guide, tells me that Hurricane Ike only displaced one of the tiles on the roof of the Dome.

One.

All owed to the design of the building. The rest of the Reliant complex didn't fare too well though. This thing could withstand worse if it had too.

What will happen to the seat sin the stadium? Surely Houston sports fanatics would want to own one or two right?

"I could see if any sports memorabilia companies would bid on them I guess. Sell them in chunks. I don't think I could unload them all though," Miller says. Selling of at least the balconies rainbow guts would turn a dime, I presume. He doesn't seem in a hurry, though, to get rid of the Dome.

After walking through the Dome for two sweaty hours, I can say that I still want the thing to remain standing, although maybe just as a skeleton. A quick run-through will show you that it's not beyond repair with enough cash, but it's probably a lost cause.

We can light it up like a modern art piece, a concrete dinosaur, a monument to the space race and the Bayou City's crazy resolve, and put a fountain in the middle. Or a beer garden. People love beer.

No one else in the group seemed to have the bug-eyed wonderment that I did, or maybe I am just not so far removed from my days of walking around aimlessly through the stadium during a game and just standing in awe, Coke in hand, at the roof and the Astros -- more than likely losing on the field. I wanted to open every door, explore every crevice. I squealed at things that seem mundane, but not in my ten-year old head.

"This is where I sat during my first game!" I yelled in my own head.

I spent the first decade and a half of my life praying to one day play on the field, either as an Oiler or an Astro. When I finally get inside and on the floor, it's covered in dirt, dust, rancid water, and funky turf. But the smile didn't leave my face.

Don't miss our slideshow from the abandoned-Dome tour.

And if you're being hit with Dome nostalgia, here are 13 awesome shots of the Oilers' Derrick Dolls, in all their `70s-`80s fashion glory.


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