When it opened in 1965, the Houston Astrodome, nicknamed the Eighth Wonder of the World, captured the attention of an entire nation, bringing pride to the city and enhancing its reputation nationwide. It was a Texas-sized vision of the future, an unthinkable feat of engineering with premium luxury suites, theater-style seating, and the first animated scoreboard. Yet there were memorable problems such as outfielders’ inability to see fly balls and failed attempts to grow natural grass—which ultimately led to the development of Astroturf. The Astrodome nonetheless changed the way people viewed sports, putting casual fans at the forefront of a user-experience approach that soon became the standard in all American sports.
The Eighth Wonder of the World tears back the facade and details the Astrodome’s role in transforming Houston as a city while also chronicling the building’s pivotal fifty years in existence and the ongoing debate about its preservation.
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The Eighth Wonder of the World
The Life of Houston's Iconic Astrodome
By Robert C. Trumpbour, Kenneth Womack
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2016 Robert C. Trumpbour and Kenneth Womack
All rights reserved.
Houston's Grand Huckster
Somewhat fittingly, it all began at the circus.
With carnival music filling up the big top, young Roy Hofheinz peered up at the drab canvas ceiling above him. As a massive drum pounded away, he stared downward at the action, bouncing up and down with giddy enthusiasm on his hard wooden seat. As the music reverberated and a kitschy assortment of circus performers moved about the arena, Hofheinz marveled at the spectacle that was unfolding below him. But he was equally awed that all of this live entertainment was happening, of all places, indoors. Nothing this impressive ever took place indoors, he thought to himself.
The whole spectacle, the large fabric roof included, amazed Hofheinz. If stormy weather moved in, he thought, the circus calliope would play on and the frivolity brought on by the slapstick comedy of the clowns would continue unabated. He was tucked into a corner with a general admission ticket stub resting in his pocket. The youngster could fully see only one of the three rings of the famed Ringling Bros. Circus. His seat was an uncomfortable wooden plank rather than the plush, padded chair of a movie theater.
Yet the young boy was too excited about the great show unfolding below to worry about luxury seating. He was immensely grateful merely for the opportunity to see such an amazing spectacle. Days earlier, when Hofheinz learned that the circus was coming to Beaumont, Texas, his early boyhood home, he pleaded with his parents to allow him to attend this grand extravaganza.
Unable to afford the three tickets that would allow the entire family to enter, his parents patiently waited outside as their only son enjoyed the entire show inside. The sacrifices made by Fritz and Nonie Hofheinz would fuel the curiosity and passions of their extremely bright son. Such selfless investments would indirectly contribute to the reshaping of one of the nation's largest metropolitan areas while changing the nature of sports spectatorship globally. At the time, however, the two parents were simply trying to please their young son.
Although of limited means and raised in austere, rugged working-class neighborhoods, Nonie Hofheinz protectively encouraged her young son to focus on his interests and passions as she challenged him to excel in education. She set high standards that would shape a thirst for success throughout his life. Despite maintaining a modest lifestyle, his mother had a desire for luxury. It was a preference that was quickly absorbed by young Roy, too, and carried through to adulthood.
The precocious Hofheinz had many interests as a youngster, but for him nothing was more exciting than the circus. Despite his gratitude for his parents' selfless sacrifice during their trip to the big top, many years later he recalled uncomfortably sitting "on a damned narrow board" as exotic animals, clowns, and acrobats performed under a massive tent.
His father, Fritz Hofheinz, often worked two or more jobs just to make ends meet. In his limited time off, he brought his young son to Beaumont's shipyards, railroads, sawmills, and city landmarks, meticulously explaining their subtle inner workings. After moving to fast-growing Houston, Roy Hofheinz saw his family struggle to maintain a modest big city clothing laundering business.
He pitched in, often working twelve-hour days, helping by washing clothes and making deliveries with his father in an old, worn-down truck. The work gave him an intricate knowledge of city streets and general urban infrastructure. It also helped him to learn how to interact with customers. This early work was something that his biographer, Edgar Ray, suggested "would enable him to later analyze the city's needs and to understand its people." Fritz Hofheinz struggled to keep the family business afloat and, after a year in Houston, opted instead to drive a delivery truck for a rival laundry company.
Fritz Hofheinz's career change would allow young Roy the freedom to pursue a wide array of unique business opportunities that would hone his skills as a promoter and salesman. From that environment, he would develop book smarts, street smarts, and an enthusiastic passion for urban culture. Unknowingly, Hofheinz was building a skill set that would enable him to build the first massive climate-controlled stadium.
After establishing a career path that was highly impressive by any measure, Hofheinz would take the lead in creating an edifice that would change the face of spectatorship, not just in Texas, but on a vast and global scale. Houston's Astrodome was Roy Hofheinz's brainchild. Although he was not an architect, an engineer, or a construction worker, without Hofheinz's vision, determination, and persistence, this luxurious facility would not have been built.
Hofheinz was, in part, inspired to build a domed stadium after a visit to Rome's famed Colosseum in 1955, long after his professional and political career had unfolded. The bread and circuses of Rome made for an apt symbol of what Hofheinz hoped to achieve for Houston. Roman leaders regarded the entertainment that was taking place inside the Colosseum as a way to showcase the vast greatness of the Roman Empire to its many citizens. In a similar manner, Hofheinz hoped that the profound luxury of the new indoor sports facility would build pride in a fast-growing Houston, while demonstrating to the entire world that this Texas locale had emerged as a genuinely Major League city.
Before the Astrodome was built, Houston was defined by livestock and oil. It was the largest city in Texas, with a rapidly growing population. In 1940 Houston's population was 384,514. By 1960 it had swelled to more than one million. By that time, it was the largest U.S. metropolitan area not to have a Major League team. It also had abundant wealth. However, the city's image may have been the single biggest factor working against achieving Major League stature. Until NASA and the Astrodome were entrenched in the city's culture, outsiders did not regard Houston as cutting-edge or forward thinking.
The path to the construction of the Astrodome took several decades to unfold. However, it was not the first sports facility to attempt to weave in opulence. In the nineteenth century, sports entrepreneur Albert Spalding oversaw construction of a ballpark in Chicago that featured eighteen private luxury boxes that allowed a small number of well-heeled patrons to watch a ballgame from padded chairs. At approximately the same time, New York's famed Polo Grounds featured a full bar while hawking cigars and establishing Harry M. Stevens as an innovative concessionaire who would offer patrons a creative assortment of food options.
As the twentieth century unfolded, more modern concrete and steel ballparks were built, with greater levels of luxury than in generations prior. In 1958 Pittsburgh had begun construction on its Civic Arena, the first retractable domed sports facility to be built in North America. While the facility in the Steel City was unique and, in its own right, revolutionary, its capacity was fewer than twenty thousand and its amenities paled in comparison to what was installed in the Astrodome. As such, Roy Hofheinz took the lead in creating a structure that was truly a game changer for sports fans.
Hofheinz's meandering career path allowed him to gain stature, build unique relationships, and learn about key aspects of architecture that would put him in a position to mastermind the Astrodome's highly complex construction. His life was so remarkable that if his biography were to be rewritten as fiction, readers would likely conclude that parts of the story were implausible and wildly exaggerated. Yet, from very humble beginnings, Roy Hofheinz was able to do what most people would consider impossible. As he entered his teen years, he embarked on a wild ride that started slowly and innocently but that, over time, allowed him to earn an impressive professional reputation and learn enough about how the real world functioned to achieve goals that seemed beyond human comprehension.
Hofheinz gained media experience working in the radio industry at an extremely young age. He organized dances, too, booking the best talent possible. Young Roy Hofheinz was not intimidated by such challenges and managed to pull off successful social events that were attended by thousands of people. His wide array of talents put him in a position to meet movers and shakers while allowing him to refine and improve his negotiating and social skills in a variety of venues.
He also involved himself with political causes, managing campaigns for a fast-rising Lyndon Baines Johnson while connecting with other political luminaries. Hofheinz's friend and political ally would later wield enormous power over the U.S. Senate, rising to the rank of majority leader. By the time the Astrodome officially opened, Hofheinz was a close friend to the president of the United States.
Hofheinz was the epitome of persistence. He took on challenge after challenge, frequently doing so many years before others would have the nerve and the courage to try. At age thirteen, for example, he convinced high school officials to allow him to print football programs, something that had never before been done at his school. He assumed the cost for the venture because he was told there was no budget to print them. To defray these costs and ensure a profit, he sold advertising to local businesses. Instead of making an emotional plea to support the local school, he astutely pitched game attendance figures, an early recognition of the importance of demographics, as evidence that the advertisements would benefit the local merchants within range of his pitch.
By age fourteen, he owned an old Ford Model T that he used to move forward on more impressive projects. He took advantage of his outstanding public-speaking skills to gain employment at a local radio station after receiving awards and widespread recognition for his role in school-based oratory competitions. He also organized dances for local teens by convincing owners of the largest dance halls in Houston to rent their spaces to him despite his youth. He was rebuffed at first, but he cleverly and persistently worked with the hall owners to win them over. He agreed that he would pay his rental fee in advance, keep alcohol away entirely, and let the owners keep all of the concession revenues. He further agreed to leave the places clean after all of the festivities were concluded, and he worked long hours to ensure that he kept up his end of each deal.
To make these events a success, Hofheinz advertised on the radio, at local businesses, and even on his car as it traveled along Houston's busy streets. He was particularly creative at times, too. Friends often noticed the youngster suspiciously stuck at the busiest city intersections, repairing what seemed to be a flat tire in locations where the advertising displays on his car would be most effective. On dance nights, he acted as host and emcee. He policed the facility to keep alcohol away, and he took his agreement to clean up afterward very seriously, pushing a broom and collecting trash into the wee hours of the morning if necessary.
For each dance, he booked two orchestras, one black, one white, with the black orchestra playing late into the night, long after the white orchestra had left. With a keen eye for talent, when possible, Hofheinz booked a young Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong for the festivities before the musician had rightfully earned his legendary status. The entrepreneurial talent of Hofheinz and the musical excellence of Armstrong were a powerful combination that attracted a wide following.
Even when Armstrong was unable to perform, which occurred quite often as his fame increased, Hofheinz provided unique creative touches that attracted a crowd. He acted as talent scout and recruiter for a newly formed band, the Birmingham Blues Blowers, an assortment of local jazz talent that he tapped to fill the void when Armstrong was unavailable. Thousands of people flocked to these dances, allowing young Roy to connect and interact with a highly diverse clientele.
His mother, despite struggling to make ends meet, had exceedingly high expectations for Hofheinz. After bringing in $1,500 for one dance, a figure that would approach $20,000 in today's dollars, he asked, "Aren't you proud of me?" Instead, he was confronted with a humbling and direct "No, I expected it of you" from his mother. Such lukewarm reactions to his success kept young Roy on his toes and propelled him to achieve greater things later.
His first foray into the political realm was an endorsement of Walter Embree Monteith, a Texas judge for more than a decade and a former Houston mayor. As a teenager, Hofheinz impressed local leaders, who had yet to see a teen speak so eloquently without relying on notes or a script. The experience at rallies and community events activated his desire to attend law school since such legal training was the most common path for success in the political arena.
Hofheinz graduated from high school just two months after turning sixteen, earning high honors for his academics. He was accepted into the University of Texas at Austin, receiving a merit-based scholarship, but chose, instead, to attend the Rice Institute, now Rice University, in part because it would grant him free tuition and keep him closer to his ongoing activities in Houston. A year later he transferred to Houston Junior College because this option consisted primarily of night classes. The change would free up his work schedule so that he could promote various business opportunities during weekdays. At Rice he was able to continue his dances and radio work, but at the junior college he had a chance to do even more, which led to greater income.
Before attending college, Hofheinz planned to more fully immerse himself in the political realm because Houston was hosting the Democratic National Convention in July 1928. It was the first major party political convention in a southern state since the end of the Civil War. With New York governor Al Smith likely to get the nomination that year, Hofheinz cleverly coaxed the New York delegation to hire him as a page, making the case that his local knowledge would be of benefit to the visitors from the north. Hofheinz never spoke directly with Smith, but despite that disappointment, he gained unique inspiration elsewhere. He saw an energetic Franklin Roosevelt fighting through his paralysis to organize the New York delegation on behalf of Smith. Hofheinz was able to watch Roosevelt nominate Smith to be the Democratic presidential candidate and, despite Smith's subsequent loss to Herbert Hoover, later observed that, in spite of his physical ailments, Roosevelt emerged through hard work and persistence to become the governor of the Empire State.
The spectacle and the unfolding drama at the Democratic National Convention captivated a young Hofheinz, but his work at the convention took him beyond the New York delegation's drama. Hofheinz was able to connect with a twenty-year old Lyndon Baines Johnson, and the two became extremely close, lifelong friends. Johnson had hoped to cover the convention as a reporter for his college newspaper, and once inside the venue, he focused on the Texas delegation. When possible, Hofheinz was able to spend time with the Texas delegation, too. His periodic visits allowed him to solidify his relationship with young Lyndon Johnson while connecting with another future vice president, John Nance Garner, a legendary congressman and House Speaker in Sam Rayburn, and a future U.S. senator, Tom Connally.
Less than two months after the convention, and about a month before Roy was scheduled to begin college, the Hofheinz family was rocked by tragedy. Roy's father was killed in a traffic accident while working, propelling young Hofheinz into the role of breadwinner for the family before he spent a single day in a college classroom. With this pressure, he worked tirelessly to both earn money and finish school.
After his father's death, Hofheinz pushed himself with even greater tenacity to achieve lofty goals. Two years after entering college, he was enrolled in the Houston Law School, gaining a full scholarship as a result of his strong oratory skills and considerable potential. By age nineteen, he had successfully passed the bar exam and was practicing law with an office of his own, even though he had not yet graduated from law school. His office was a block from the county courthouse and jail, allowing him to save time as he worked in the courthouse and in his office with clients. He took on criminal cases, defending a broad variety of clients. However, he stepped away from the practice after learning that he was responsible for the acquittal of a guilty man. Though he had no idea that the man was guilty when the acquittal was rendered, the subsequent revelation left Hofheinz feeling deep remorse.
Excerpted from The Eighth Wonder of the World by Robert C. Trumpbour, Kenneth Womack. Copyright © 2016 Robert C. Trumpbour and Kenneth Womack. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword: The Dome Was So Nice They Opened It Twice Mickey Herskowitz,
Prologue: A Noble Idea for the Oil Patch,
I. Cow Town,
1. Roy Hofheinz: Houston's Grand Huckster,
2. Of Cows and Construction: Houston's Livestock Show and Rodeo,
3. Going Pro: George Kirksey, Craig Cullinan, and the Major League Dream,
II. Dome Town,
4. Zimmerman and the Grand Plan: Engineering a Marvel,
5. The Grass Isn't Always Greener: AstroTurf and the Sports Purist Backlash,
III. Space City,
6. Fractious Dome Futures,
7. The Dome and Its Legacy,