October 25, 2017

From Dome to Dome: The Hidden Lives of Historic Stadiums

  • By: Nicholas Som
Astrodome exterior

photo by: Ed Schipul

Houston's Astrodome is one of two sports stadiums among the Trust's National Treasures, along with Hinchliffe Stadium.

After spending more than a year on the road visiting sports stadiums and immersing himself in fanbases across the country, writer Rafi Kohan has learned almost everything there is to know about the iconic venues we gather inside to cheer and jeer. His book The Arena: Inside the Tailgating, Ticket-Scalping, Mascot-Racing, Dubiously Funded, and Possibly Haunted Monuments of American Sport was released in August 2017, and it offers a thorough, entertaining look into the hidden lives of stadiums and the communities they belong to.

We chatted with Kohan about his travels, the Houston Astrodome, and how our attitudes toward historic stadiums are reflected in ourselves.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

What made you decide to write a book about stadiums and spend a year traveling the country just to visit them?

Stadiums have always been interesting to me, especially the sort of underworld, subcultures, and characters who populate them. [This project] seemed like a great triangulation of all my interests, from sports to embedding myself in unknown communities.

The stadium has been explored in a lot of ways—historically, architecturally, and through the lens of the games themselves. But not so much from the perspective of those people who make the stadiums run on game days. For these people, the game kind of fades away. It’s not about the game. Your eyes are not focused on the field. You’re looking at the grass, or at the dirt, or at the concessions stands, or the fans themselves. It was amazing to me how deep I could go into these worlds and never pay attention to the game itself.

Which stadiums did you find most compelling, and why?

The older, more historic buildings are the ones that draw me. I miss the old Yankee Stadium so much. And it doesn’t help that the new Yankee Stadium is just a corporate mall, and does not feel like it was built for fans in any way.

But Fenway Park, and Lambeau Field, and Wrigley [Field]—it feels like there’s so much history and soul trapped in the concrete, just coursing through the concourses. You walk in there and you feel like you’re going into a special place.

Part of that has to do with the identity that the crowd brings with them. But I think the building informs that. I saw that happen with Yankee Stadium—the complexion of fandom changed going from one building to the other.

Now, the Houston Astrodome (pictured at top) is one of the National Trust’s National Treasures. What makes it so iconic?

It was the first domed stadium! Roy Hofheinz, the man behind the Astrodome, was a very eccentric Houston figure who was a politician, a huckster, a really “out there” kind of character. The fact that he was the one who wanted to cover a stadium, a lot of people thought that was just a crazy idea, as impossible as putting a man on the moon. But he did it, and putting a roof on top of a [sports] field was just so game-changing, a technological and engineering innovation.

At the time, in the middle of the [20th] century, stadiums were a way of putting yourself on the map and endowing your community with civic pride. Houston used to be a backwater cattle town, and [the Astrodome] changed the perception of the city overnight, into a forward-thinking tech leader. I think that lifted the confidence of the entire community.

The Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan.

photo by: Ashley Diener/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Silverdome housed the NFL's Detroit Lions from 1975 to 2001. Its roof was destroyed by a 2013 winter storm.

In your book, the Astrodome is paralleled with the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan (near Detroit). Both stadiums once faced an uncertain future. However, the Silverdome is falling apart and will likely be demolished soon, while the Astrodome, which is owned by Harris County, is successfully being transitioned into a multifunctional park/event space. What was the determining factor in each of their fates?

I don’t know if there’s a single force, besides the great recession that ripped through Michigan right around the time [Detroit] was trying to figure out what to do with [the Silverdome].

The Astrodome had reached the point where there was a very low cost of maintenance to the community. [Harris County Judge] Ed Emmett told me it cost $166,000 a year for upkeep. That’s not nothing, but that’s not a huge amount of money. Meanwhile, it was kind of a perfect storm of terrible things that hit the Silverdome.

I think [the comparison] really highlights how the decision of what to do with a defunct stadium is such a high stakes question. You could end up doing something great for the community, as is hoped for the Astrodome. You could demolish it and move on, which sometimes is probably the right decision because it costs money to keep a building up and running. Or you do nothing, and you get stuck in the middle ground, like the Silverdome.

It’s hard to make the decision what to do with [a stadium] afterwards. Do we tear it down? What will it cost us to keep it running? Do we try to transition it into something different? You can’t do that well if you’re only deciding after the team moves on. You have to be prepared ahead of time. You need to have those legacy discussions long before the team ever leaves.

What lessons should we learn from the preservation efforts surrounding the Astrodome and other historic stadiums?

So much of the stadium “problem” we have in this country is that we build so many venues. It seems like they’re built for planned obsolescence, just to be gone in 20 to 30 years.

That’s one of my main takeaways. These places are reflections of who we are, the good and the bad, and I think we reveal ourselves in what happens to these venues. Do we want to be wasteful as a society, or do we want to be more sustainable? Do we want to create buildings that matter, that have a legacy? Or is it just about short-term revenue gains, and then moving on to the next place as soon as the public is willing to subsidize it?

Finally, what makes stadiums important to preserve for people who might not care about sports?

These are important buildings, and even if we’re not patrons ourselves, it’s important to think about what they mean to our communities. As we said before, the Astrodome kind of elevated the pride of the community. Not everyone necessarily went to a game or a concert there, but places that aren’t significant to us individually can be significant to us communally, and I think [stadiums] are absolutely buildings that fall into that bucket.

Nicholas Som is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

Now accepting nominations for the 2024 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places! Letters of Intent are due September 29, 2023.

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