Over the years VIP tours of the Astrodome have included a stop at the all-faiths chapel, and I was lucky enough to make the pilgrimage not long ago. An odd little room located behind the right-field fence, the chapel was built two decades ago as part of the private apartment of Judge Roy Hofheinz, the colorful Houston politician who dreamed up, built and ran the Astrodome. The chapel was intended to tie in with dome activities—a place for matadors to gather spiritual strength before the bloodless bullfights that were once a dome event and for ballplayers to get married.
The chapel's style is quasi-Gothic and all Hofheinz. A stained-glass—actually, stained-plastic—window above the altar bathes the simulated-stone walls in fluorescent holiness. "This happens to be for the Shinto religion," said my host, taking down an image of a torii (the symbolic wooden gate of Shintoism) from the rose window. "Not real popular here in the South. That's not your religion? No problem." He replaced the torii with a Christian cross, then a Star of David. "You don't have things like this in other stadiums," he said.
Too true. And as of this month the Astrodome will not have such things, either. The dome is undergoing a $60 million renovation with a Super Bowl crowd in mind. Seating capacity is being increased to 65,000 (61,000 for most football games, 55,000 for baseball). To make room, demolition crews will pull down Hofheinz's apartment, where he lived off and on from 1965 to '75, the years he ran the dome. Posterity will thus lose not only the all-faiths chapel but also a presidential suite built for Lyndon Johnson, the "Tipsy Tavern," and assorted other treasures that have been hidden from Astrodome fans behind an assemblage of odd-shaped windows beyond the outfield.
Hofheinz, who died in 1982, was an exuberant showman, and a sort of Disneyland aesthetic took over in his Astrodome apartment. The apartment is mainly on two floors, each roughly 26 feet wide and 200 feet long. Harper Goff, a Hollywood set designer, did much of the decorating. "I knew what he wanted—flamboyant," says Goff, who's now semiretired. "When hoity-toity people came in and whispered about the bad taste, he loved it."
Hofheinz had hoped that the presidential suite would help lure the 1968 Democratic Convention to the dome. The suite was done in the style of the Sun King. "This is pretty gaudy stuff," a visitor once told Hofheinz, and he replied, "Louis XIV didn't think so." LBJ never slept in the suite, but he allowed his friend, "the Judge," to use the presidential seal on a rug at the foot of the grand staircase.
Hofheinz liked to keep his guests entertained. The apartment includes a shooting gallery, an AstroTurf putting green, the Astrotots Puppet Theatre and an Astro-Bowl alley for visiting keglers.
"This area I think he decorated in Early Whorehouse," said my host, leading me past a painting of a Roman sporting scene, which Hofheinz had retitled THROWING OUT THE FIRST CHRISTIAN OF THE SEASON. We entered the Tipsy Tavern, which has a tilted floor and a view of the ball field through a cockeyed window. If someone at the end of the bar ordered a beer, the bartender—often Hofheinz himself—could fill a special stein, slide it toward the patron and then, at the last second, activate an electromagnet to keep the beer from landing in the drinker's lap.
When guests needed to use the rest room, Hofheinz directed them to an elevator, which shook and seemed to carry them down to Hades but never actually moved. A back door would open onto an appalling scene of ersatz cobwebs and the sound of rats scurrying. "He wanted everything to be exciting," says Goff.
Museums have not lined up trucks to preserve all this splendor, although the chapel has been donated to a hospital in Houston. Many of the impresario's other artifacts will end up in the dumpster. Where Hofheinz had his bathroom, a refreshment stand will be built, and it will not even serve trick hot dogs.