SI Vault
Liz Smith
April 12, 1965
Judge Roy Hofheinz has gilded the Houston Astrodome with $6 million worth of luxuries that have little to do with baseball—except to coddle the fan as he has never been coddled before
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April 12, 1965

Giltfinger's Golden Dome

Judge Roy Hofheinz has gilded the Houston Astrodome with $6 million worth of luxuries that have little to do with baseball—except to coddle the fan as he has never been coddled before

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From a glass-enclosed box near the 474-foot-long electronic scoreboard, Kubla Khan surveys his stately pleasure dome, talking about $37 million worth of detail in a kind of Texas "poor boy" lingo. Only the scene isn't Xanadu, it is Houston, and Kubla himself is actually Judge Roy Hofheinz, prime mover and dreamer of the domed-stadium dream. He is looking out into the Houston Astrodome, a structure 710 feet in diameter which may very well make obsolete all other stadiums in the world.

This week, on Friday evening, April 9, the Astrodome will open officially, with one of the most unusual baseball weekends ever scheduled: five exhibition games between the Houston Astros and two teams of visitors, the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles. The program is designed to measure up to the Astros' new home, the first and largest self-enclosed, completely air-conditioned sports arena ever created.

For weeks now, in spring training camps, in architectural and technical circles and at Texas cocktail parties, the Astrodome has been the common topic. This mammoth structure shimmers whitely over nine and a half acres of Texas flatland, a prophecy come true. Back in 1939, air-conditioning pioneer Willis Carrier said the day would come when men would live under domes of transparent material, ruling out weather as a factor in work and play. Roy Hofheinz believed in that prediction.

Of course, they all laughed when the judge sat down five years ago to play Astrodome builder. Nobody thought it could be done and, although the premiere is virtually upon us, many still doubt that the domed stadium represents the shape of things to come. What they cannot afford to doubt, however, is the shape and substance of Judge Hofheinz, a tall, round, fiftyish Texan who corralled the dissenters like some stalwart quarter horse herding steers into a chute.

The judge is a shrewd and sophisticated operator in the Lyndon B. Johnson genre—country-boy geniality mixed with a gimlet-eyed grasp of the realities. In fact, he was the President's first political campaign manager many years ago. In 1936, at 24, he became the youngest man ever to be a U.S. county judge, serving for eight years. Credited with the foresight that gave Houston a head start in its current business boom, he became the most controversial mayor that Houston ever had. He also parlayed a radio station, a sludge industry and a law firm into a multimillion-dollar business. As a somewhat reluctant admirer has said, "The judge has to be king of something. He is too smart to be governor of this state, so he is settling at the moment for building something everyone said couldn't be built. Now that he has proved them wrong, he will also prove he can make it pay off."

It was Hofheinz' pressuring that produced the $37 million complex ($6 million is private investment) that made this impossible stadium possible. But nowhere is his Midas touch—and taste—more evident than within the confines of the Dome itself. The judge's love for all that glitters begins with the Dome offices. Here there are yards and yards of deep gold carpet, lush velvet scarlet-and-gold chairs supported by rampant Austrian lions or gold metal frames, specially designed gold telephones on every gold-trimmed Louis XIV desk. In the bathrooms adjoining the offices of Hofheinz and his co-partner, R. E. (Bob) Smith, the fixtures have been sprayed with Velvatex, a kind of yellow-gold plush that covers the lid, the seat and even the pipes. It is hardly surprising that a few unkind Texans refer to the judge as "Giltfinger."

Upstairs in the glittery black-and-gold glass-enclosed kitchen of his box, Hofheinz pours coffee into gold Flintridge china cups and taps his cigar into a gilded ceramic ashtray shaped like an outfielder's glove. Yellow velvet chairs on gold-ball legs can be pushed up to the window so that VITs (Very Important Texans) can look down at the green diamond below. The adjoining living room boasts an aureate Oriental dragon, and a circular stair leads to a Fu Manchu bedroom which Hofheinz admits is "just a showcase for my Madison Avenue friends who think Indians are loose when they go west of the Hudson." Even as the judge displays his sauna, another gilded toilet and some of the 26,000 pounds of art picked up in a six-day tour through Hong Kong, Thailand and the Middle East, he explains them away as window dressing. "Dealing in intangibles as I do," says he, "the sooner people see something like this and realize you have some ideas, the easier it is to sell your product."

Just what, you may ask, has all this live-in luxury and astral salesmanship got to do with sport? The answer depends on who's talking. As one of the dozens of architects who worked on the project remarks, "the stadium is a lot more than a baseball field, despite all that stuff about it being the perfect and only fair sports arena. You know the things Hofheinz is saying—that it will end the excuses of the Alibi Ikes who make up ballplaying, because there are no shadows on the field, there is perfectly diffused light, no soggy earth, no wind, no hot sun and no land curve. Actually, Hofheinz has been more interested in the peripheral things that attract the general public. In fact, the ball team was the last thing on the judge's mind while we sweated building this thing."

Whatever was on the judge's mind, he has already turned the Dome into a show even when it is empty of fans and team. He anticipates a stream of tourists who will come to see the Dome itself. Boxholders will be able to entertain guests in the Dome's private clubs when no game is scheduled, and point out where they would sit if anything was going on. The Astrodome will be operating 365 days a year, and all the while the judge will be selling—the 45,000 seats for the team's ball games and one-minute spot ads between innings of baseball and quarters of football for an enormous TV screen set into the scoreboard. He must fill the Dome with other sporting events and with a variety of convention groups in order to pay the $750,000 annual rent to Harris County, which has leased the Dome to the Houston Sports Association for 40 years. Gulf Oil is the only advertiser now visible in the Dome, with two gigantic orange medallions on the $2 million scoreboard for which they paid $1 million. The judge claims that he could sell the space for twice the amount today.

In addition to its glitter, the stadium is also full of mechanical marvels. There is an ultraviolet-ray smoke detector for checking visibility. There is a weather station on the roof that feeds data to a computer that keeps the temperature a constant 72�. The diamond is lighted by 300 footcandles—no one has ever seen one lighted by even 200 before. When the Astros hit a homer the giant scoreboard lights up in a pyrotechnical display. Cowboys appear, bullets ricochet, a snorting bull comes out and it is generally the Battle of San Jacinto. If the opposition homers, the board actually says "Tilt."

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