Ryan Holeywell |@RyanHoleywell | August 7, 2015
When I was a middle school student in Houston in the 1990s, there were few things I enjoyed more than attending games at the Astrodome.
My father and I would always arrive as soon as the stadium opened – two hours before game time – so I could watch batting practice and try to collect autographs.
My favorite Astros memory was in 1997, when a friend invited me at the last minute to join his family at that evening’s game. But it wasn’t just any game: with a win, the Astros would ensure their first playoff appearance in 11 years.
The Astros wound up defeating the Cubs that night, and I – like everyone else in the Dome – was ecstatic. From our vantage point in the upper deck, we saw jubilant fans running onto the field to celebrate, and stadium security officials weren’t stopping them. As blue and silver confetti rained from ceiling, I couldn’t believe what my friend’s dad told us next: he planned on running onto the field too. We were welcome to join him.
We sprinted from our nosebleed seats down the long, winding ramps until we finally reached the lower level and hopped onto the playing field. It probably wasn’t the most responsible thing for an adult to do with a couple of 12-year-olds. But it’s one of my most enduring baseball memories.
In an effort to snatch a memento, I took a souvenir soda cup, filled it with dirt from second base, and tucked it away, being extra careful not to spill it on the long car ride home.
That cup full of genuine Astrodome dirt is still around, and — if I can find it in my parents’ attic — is just the kind of thing the Astrodome Memories project wants to see for itself.
The consortium, which includes the Houston Public Library and a slew of other partners, aims to document physical artifacts as well as Houstonians’ own oral histories about the famed stadium — before it’s too late.
The Astrodome opened to international acclaim in 1965 and represented an engineering marvel. The outdoors had been brought indoors, and sports would be forever changed.
Though the Dome is still standing, it’s been largely vacant since the Houston Astros packed up 16 years ago. Since then, the future of the stadium has remained a topic of ongoing debate.
There’s a renewed effort this month to save the Astrodome, but officials behind Astrodome Memories don’t want to take chances. After voters rejected a plan to fund stadium renovations and talk of demolition seemed to gain traction, they developed a plan to create a sort of Astrodome archive.
“They had been talking about tearing down the Astrodome,” said Judith Hiott, chief of the Houston Area Library Automated Network. “Whether it stays or goes, we felt having a place where all the history of the building is housed is fairly critical. And it’s a fun project everyone could get behind.”
The partners are trying to create a digital repository of records and artifacts of the 50-year-old building, which are currently distributed across city, county state and university libraries and archives.
The Harris County archives for example, has the biggest collection of Astrodome material – including many blueprints – because the stadium was a county project.
University of Houston, meanwhile, maintained the papers of George Kirksey, a sports writer and baseball promoter who was a key player in bringing baseball to Houston and ultimately creating the Astrodome.
The goal is to create an online, one-stop shop for those types of things while at the same time discovering and cataloging new items. A key component, project organizers say, is the public.
On Saturday, Astrodome Memories will host a “scanning event,” in which staff will take audio recording of Astrodome stories and snap photographs and 3D scans of mementos such as ticket stubs, photos and other Dome-related items. The group is trying to collect memories of the stadium before they become too distant.
“As an archivist, the fresher the memory, the more vivid the memory,” said Vince Lee, archivist at the University of Houston’s special collections library, which is a partner in Astrodome Memories. “As you go further along, in terms of distance and time, some of it becomes more fuzzy.”
The recordings and photographs will be archived so that even if the Dome is demolished, it’s impact on Houston won’t be forgotten. The libraries scanned public items at the county’s Astrodome birthday party earlier this year. Two more scanning events are on tap for next year.Eventually the program’s website, which already features some items, will be expanded to highlight more of the collection.
The project began in September 2014, thanks largely to $75,000 grant from the Texas State Library and Archives Commission. The funding is being used to establish the groundwork for the partnership and launch community outreach efforts.
On a recent visit to the Houston Public Library, the project’s staff showed off and discussed a few of their highlights. They were busy scanning some of the dozens of scrapbooks full of newspaper clippings collected by E.A. “Squatty” Lyons, who served as a Harris County commissioner for 48 years. “He sort of recorded the entire history of the Astrodome in these scrapbooks,” Hiott said.
At a previous event, they scanned some of the original cartoons drawings created for the Dome’s iconic scoreboard, provided by one of its operators.
A photo from a groundbreaking ceremony features various dignitaries using pistols – instead of shovels – to move dirt.
The archives also have drawings by clothing designer Evelyn Norton Anderson depicting the futuristic attire worn by the Astrodome’s female ushers, affectionately known as “Space-ettes.” Earlier this year, a former Space-ette brought her own photographs of herself wearing the costume decades ago.
A trip through the archives reveals interesting bits of “secret” Astrodome history as well. For example, Hiott said, the building originally was designed to include systems that pulled cigarette smoke out of the air because smoking was so ubiquitous in the 1960s. “It wasn’t to keep people healthy,” Hiott said. “It was so they could see the ballgame.”
The archives also provide insight into the racial politics of the 1960s. One photo in the archive that wasn’t widely circulated at the time featured the city’s black leaders participating in the groundbreaking. Astros owner Roy Hofheinz, the former county judge and mayor, knew he needed support of black voters to ensure the stadium would be approved in a bond referendum. “He promised (black leaders) it would be an integrated building if they voted for it, and he brought them to the groundbreaking,” Hiott explained.
The collection is vast – archivists say it’s so large they don’t know exactly how many items it contains – but they still want everyday Houstonians to contribute.
“Everyone has a piece of the puzzle,” Lee said.
Astrodome Memories event
Saturday, August 8, 2015
10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Julia Ideson Building
1st Floor Auditorium
550 McKinney St., 77002
For appointments or questions, please call 832-393-1522. More info here.