Behind an obscure doorway at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, there is a remarkable collection of historic information and artifacts about the Astros, and the Astrodome. I was fortunate enough to get a look at this collection when I ran into Mike Acosta after a recent game. Mike is the Astros’ authentication manager, and also the team’s archivist and its foremost historian. Mike co-authored Deep in the Heart (Bright Sky Press, 2013), a fifty-year history of the Astros.
During my visit, Mike showed me this elaborate model of the Astrodomain complex, used as a sales tool in the late 1960s and early 1970s by Judge Hofheinz. Hofheinz was a consummate salesman, and he understood the value of an architectural presentation model: it commands attention, and it can close sales. He commissioned several models of the Astrodome during its design and construction, and made a point to send them “on tour” across Texas to garner interest in the project.
This model was designed to fold up into two slender wooden carrying cases, which the Judge would cart around to meetings, presumably to woo convention business and tourism. You can see the hinges in the view below.
From the beginning, Hofheinz had seen the Astrodome not simply as a stadium, but as the centerpiece of a vast convention and entertainment complex. When land was assembled for the new domed stadium, he and his business partner R.E. “Bob” Smith had shrewdly set aside several choice parcels surrounding the site, property that could be privately developed to capture some of the value of the huge facility next door.
When the Dome was completed in 1965, Hofheinz moved to develop the surrounding land. The Astrohall Exhibition and Convention Center was completed the year after the Dome opened. With 500,000 square feet of exhibition space, it was by 1968 the largest such facility in the world, positioned to attract national trade shows.
Astroworld USA, opened in 1968 on a sixty-acre site south of the Dome complex. The Judge’s touch was evident throughout his amusement park in a succession of themed areas: Americana Square, Western Junction, and the Mexican Fiesta Plaza. Families could ride an alpine-themed rollercoaster through the caverns of der Hofheinzburg, or take in the view from the top of the 340-foot Astroneedle. A distinctly Houstonian feature of the new park was a 2,000-ton outdoor air conditioning system, used to cool picnic and waiting areas.
By 1969, what was to become the capstone of the empire was in place with the completion of the Astroworld Hotel/Motel complex west of the Dome. The top floor of the flagship Astroworld Hotel was given over to the Celestial Suite, featuring antiques from Hofheinz’s own collection, and, of course, his characteristic lavish finishes and interior-decoration themes: a Madrid Castle living room, a P.T. Barnum Circus Suite, a Fu Manchu Room, and Tarzan’s Adventure Suite, complete with rope swing. The nightly rate was $2,500 ($15,900 in current dollars), at the time the most expensive hotel accommodation in the world.
In the span of a single decade, Hofheinz had transformed a humid, empty prairie into The Astrodomain, a 500-acre entertainment complex centered on one of the world’s most innovative buildings. He once told a reporter, “Most people have no vision. They’ll build a Coney Island and quit. Or a race track and quit. Or they’ll get a pro football team and quit. I intend to pull them all together here.”
Mike Acosta is working on a long-term plan is to put this model, along with other artifacts from the collection on display in a new Astros Hall of Fame, to be located at MMP. When completed, this exhibit will be a must see!