Behind the odd-shaped windows the Judge lived for eight years, surrounded by a billiard parlor, and a minigolf course, and a beauty salon, and a barber shop, and an interfaith chapel, and a children's library, and a presidential suite reserved for LBJ, and bathrooms with gilded toilet seats.
The Judge had another sometime residence, the Celestial Suites at the Astro World Hotel. A bathtub there was so large, it required an indoor-pool permit. In fact, the $3,000-a-night Celestial Suites penthouse was listed in The Guinness Book of Records as the planet's most expensive hotel room. Elvis stayed there, though rumor has it that he found the place, decorated with the detritus of the Judge's European shopping sprees, too gaudy.
On weekends the Judge relaxed at his bayfront retreat, called Huckster House. The great man unwound there by clanging a locomotive bell he kept in the front yard, ringing the thing like Quasimodo at ungodly hours of the night "just to let the neighbors know we're around."
Alas, it is all lost now: Huckster House, the Celestial Suites, the apartment at the Astrodome. Pool took the media through the Judge's chambers for one last tour before the Astros gutted the residence in 1988. It had been 15 years since the Judge lived in the Dome, but parts of his crib remained spookily intact. Pool, rummaging through the rooms alone, opened one door in the dark, flipped on a light and was greeted by a disembodied head falling off a shelf: It was the overstuffed noggin of Chester Charge, the Astros' first mascot.
It is all lost now, but in its day the Judge's Astrodomain was a spectacle the likes of which the world had never seen, nor will likely ever want to see again. "I've stayed in some pretty good places," columnist Art Buchwald said after a night in the Celestial Suites, "but nothing quite so ridiculous as that joint."
There will never be another Judge. There will never be another Dome. French ambassador Herve Alphand visited Houston in 1965 and compared the steel-girdered roof of the Astrodome to the Eiffel Tower. "The Eiffel Tower is nice," agreed the Judge, "but you can't play ball there."
They all came: Bob Hope and Billy Graham, Buchwald and Buckminster Fuller. Lyndon & Lady Bird. Huntley & Brinkley. Princess Grace & Prince Rainier. When the (Astro) world was young, a Houston Astro might meet anyone upon arrival each day at the park.
On the eve of the 1967 Houston Champion International golf tournament, there was a pregame closest-to-the-pin contest: Various Astros drove golf balls from home plate to a flagstick in centerfield, competing against a team composed of PGA veterans and...Lawrence Welk. "I can still remember, [Astro infielder] Doug Rader kept calling Lawrence Welk Larry " recalls Dierker wistfully. "Hey, Larry...." The Astros were brash and young, and expected to remain so forever.
But time passes. Huntley & Brinkley split up, Princess Grace was killed in a car wreck, and sometime in there the Astrodome went flat, like a sunken soufflé. The Camelot optimism that ushered in the 1960s—that ushered in the Astrodome—had long before gone flat, like old champagne. Or the champagne music of Larry Welk.
The erstwhile Eighth Wonder of the World is now another dreary pitcher's park, albeit one that gave us fake grass and turf toe and rug burn and corporate boxes and those infernal cartoon clapping hands that tell us when to cheer. But happily, the legacy of the Astrodome is more than that, as the legacy of the 1960s is more than Vietnam and assassinations.