When it opened in 1965, Houston's iconic Astrodome stadium was considered an engineering marvel that solved a long-standing question facing the community: how to make a summer sport like baseball comfortable in a place notorious for oppressive heat.
But ever since the Houston Astros left the stadium following the 1999 season, the facility itself has become the subject of much head-scratching, as the community has struggled to figure out what to do with a massive structure so neglected that it's been condemned by the fire marshal.
On Tuesday, Harris County voters were given the chance to answer that question when they were asked whether to issue $217 million in bonds to renovate the facility.
The overhaul would have entailed removing the seats, sprucing up the facade and building a pedestrian promenade, among other improvements, to transform the facility into what was called "The New Dome Experience," a sort of mega-venue that could hold events too big for traditional convention centers.
But voters gave the idea a resounding no on Tuesday, opting against refurbishing the building. County officials have not explicitly said a no vote would mean the structure would be demolished, but they've suggested as much.
Once considered an engineering marvel, the Astrodome has now become something of an anachronism. Multisport, domed stadiums are no longer in vogue in the sports world, with cities and teams instead opting for glitzier, single-purpose facilities. Houston itself is the embodiment of that trend, having opened new venues for professional baseball, football, basketball and soccer since 2000 -- all while allowing the massive Astrodome to further deteriorate.
At one point, a group of investors had the exclusive rights to redevelop the stadium into a hotel, but the plan fell apart. Over the years, plenty of groups submitted ideas -- some of them downright wacky -- of what to do with the stadium, like turn it into a movie studio or an indoor snow skiing venue. But none of them went anywhere, mainly because they didn't come with funding. If the county's plan had been a success, it would have been an anomaly. Few major stadiums in the U.S. have ever come back from the brink.
For Houstonians, the sentimental attachment to the Astrodome can't be overstated. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who has held office since 2007, says he's constantly asked questions about the stadium, and he believes its fate -- more than any other issue facing the community -- will define his legacy.
In an editorial advocating for a "yes" vote on the referendum, the Houston Chronicle had said the Astrodome is just as important to the city as the arch is to St. Louis or the opera house is to Sydney, Australia. "It sort of put Houston on the map," says Rusty Bienvenue, executive director of Houston's chapter of the American Institute of Architects. "It represents Houston as a place of business and industry and creating things. I think that’s why it became a symbol of not just what we were at the time, but what we want to show the world: that we can do it first."
Though the stadium has been empty for years, the push to finally do something about it came because Houston will host the Final Four college basketball tournament in 2016 and the Super Bowl in 2017. Emmett says the county wants the Astrodome to be either refurbished or demolished by then so the eyesore won't be seen on the world stage.
Interestingly, Emmett -- who campaigned for the rehab -- said it was never a given that a new version of the dome would be a moneymaker. And if the facility didn't exist, the county wouldn't have pursued building a similar structure. In other words, the rationale for saving the dome wasn't based on economics but rather the emotional connection to a structure that represents Houston's emergence as one of the country's leading cities. "The dome, in many ways, defines our community," Emmett says.