Houston, you have a problem. The Astrodome, which was proclaimed the Eighth Wonder of the World when it opened 31 years ago, did not turn out to be another Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Or even an ivied walls of Wrigley. The future of the once futuristic playground will hang in the balance on Nov. 5 when citizens of Harris County vote on a proposed $265 million retractable-roof baseball stadium. The Astrodome, formerly a symbol of progress and a source of pride for Houstonians, may now be renounced by the citizenry that once acclaimed it.
An Astrodome contemporary, Atlanta- Fulton County Stadium, will be a goner soon after the World Series. It was considered a paradise by the Braves when they abandoned Milwaukee following the 1965 season to take up residence in Atlanta, but it will be razed in the off-season, its site to become a parking lot for the adjacent Olympic Stadium—soon to be Ted Turner Field. The replacement of old and not-so-old stadiums is either under way or being given serious consideration in 13 other major league cities.
Those stadiums were hailed as marvels when they opened, in most cases barely more than a generation ago. Many came out of the cookie-cutter school of architecture—Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia—massive circular arenas built to hold 55,000 fans and house both baseball and football teams. At the time this made perfect economic and engineering sense. They were designed in an era when fans went to games and not "entertainment experiences," when no one was unduly fussy. The stadiums had to have enough seats to anticipate the demand of growing baby boomers, one stadium surely was cheaper to build than two, and artificial turf was going to make these sporting palaces even more efficient. Like shag carpets and that sickly avocado color that was all the rage for kitchen appliances, they seemed like good ideas at the time. Now plastic grass is the curse of sore-jointed athletes, every team wants a single-use stadium, and baseball has decided that cozy whips colossal any day of the week. Those 1960s parks have turned out to be the structural equivalent of the Nehru jacket.
Now we're in the era of economy-sized stadiums, 42,000-seat faux-antique ballparks from the Iowa-cornfield school of architecture, where premium seats are cushioned for the comfort of those with premium seats. Baltimore's Camden Yards, Cleveland's Jacobs Field, Denver's Coors Field and the other ball yards replete with calculated kitsch have elicited the same awe as the Eighth Wonder once did. They are now as conventionally wise as Riverfront and Three Rivers were 25 years ago, magic beans that will turn revenue streams into waterfalls and dead downtowns into Disneylands—if you can look beyond the public debt. Bill them (the taxpayers), and they will come. On one level the optimism is impressive. Detroit hopes its new ballpark will revive downtown in a way that a monorail and a shining complex of buildings called the Renaissance Center, both erected in the past 20 years, have failed to do. The Montreal Expos lust for a charming downtown bandbox to replace their antiseptic but more-than-adequate domed Olympic Stadium 12 minutes east of centre ville, as if a stadium alone will swell attendance in a city where baseball apathy runs deep and the owners' pockets run shallow.
But lurking beneath this Iowa-cornfield building boom is an assumption that also is profoundly pessimistic: Baseball isn't coming back. The game has become as dated as the avocado Hotpoint, and you do not need 55,000 seats when 40,000 will be plenty. Intimacy in a ballpark has its virtues, of course. If you are an owner, small stadiums reduce the number of distant (read: cheap) seats and create an artificial scarcity, lending a sense of urgency to ticket buying. But if owners and politicians figured the game was going to regain its grip on the fans' souls, surely one of them would tell HOK Sports Facilities Group, the company that came up with the designs for Camden Yards and Coors Field, to cut the confectionery and put in another 10,000 seats—even cheap ones.
Houstonians will be voting on the high-tech version of these new-old parks. If the electorate refuses to pay for a retractable-roof stadium, the Astros will surely beat it to a city that will build them some sort of new park. But taxpayers beware: Don't assume that an investment of hundreds of millions is going to last your lifetime, let alone your children's lifetimes. The flavors of the decade change. Architectural revisionism rules. Lisa Marie and Michael's till-death-do-us-part lasted 20 months, the thousand-year Reich couldn't make a quarter of a century, and as Houstonians know, the Dome, old before its time, might not see the millennium. The Eighth Wonder was no Pyramids scheme.