The Astrodome and the NRHP

Or, “Carl’s First Foray into Writing About Baseball… And Likely Gets in Over His Head”

Those of you who know me, or who have seen my Goodreads shelves, know that, outside of archaeology, I *love* things baseball. Though I now live in Arkansas, I’m from Houston and have been an Astros fan for a long time (seriously, Biggio should have been a lock for the HoF… Bags, too). While I enjoy Minute Maid Park, the Astrodome holds a special place in my heart, as I’m sure it does for most Houstonians of a certain age (though, I’ll admit, it smelled kind of urine-y by the end), and the recent destruction of the corner entrance ramps seemed a harbinger of the ultimate demise of the building. Now dwarfed by Reliant Stadium, what would it really get used for?

This week, I was heartened to hear that the Astrodome had been listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). There seems to be a little bit of confusion in the blogosphere about what this actually means for the future of the Astrodome, so I thought I’d share a few thoughts based on my years as a federal archaeologist, where I had to deal with the National Historic Preservation Act of 1965, as amended (NHPA), which is the legislation that establishes the NRHP.

Generally, the NHPA is used to ensure that the federal government doesn’t wantonly destroy American heritage as it does the things it needs to do. If the Army wants to set up a live fire range on one of its installations, NHPA says it has to make sure it doesn’t establish it where it will blow apart a 17th century cemetery. It’s a good law that has done a lot to preserve our national heritage. The NHPA established the NRHP as a list of properties (buildings, places, archaeological sites, etc.) that were considered significant and worthy of at least consideration during federal undertakings. Technically, it doesn’t mean that the Army couldn’t blow up the aforementioned 17th century cemetery, but it would have to take the time to think about it, talk with the descendants (who would have a few choice words on the subject of whether or not to blow their ancestors’ remains to smithereens), and at least consider what other things it could do instead.

In this case, however, the property owner is not a federal agency, it’s Harris County, so those limitations don’t apply. On first blush, this might be seen as a bad thing, as if it were a federal agency, the Dome could be knocked down on a whim. The County could basically run in a demolition crew tomorrow, tie some dynamite to its main pillars, and blow the thing into Oklahoma (I know, I know, that was mean), and the NRHP listing would provide exactly zero protection from such a fate.

There’s another way of looking at this, though, that should give us some heart. See, one of the other bits of the NRHP legislation states that no property can be listed on the NRHP if the landowner objects to it being so. So, the county let it go forward. Also, listing something on the NRHP, even something as patently awesome and historic as the Astrodome,  involves a long and drawn-out process. Properties have to be nominated, which require a full historical writeup and a clear statement of the property’s significance, neither of which would be something that could be cranked out in a few hours (trust me on that one, hermano). Also, listing requires a review process involving state review boards, blood sacrifices, and all-night Nintendo tournaments (I’m fibbing about at least one of those…). If the county was going to tear the thing down, why allow the nomination and listing process to go forward? Why go through all that trouble for nothing?

What the NRHP listing does allow for is let the county apply for a range of grants, tax breaks, and guidance from preservation specialists that would make it a lot easier for the county to find some new use(s) for the building. What those uses are are might be down the road, I don’t know, though world’s largest planetarium sounds really cool (or a giant NHL venue that would get back at Les Alexander for taking away my Aeros).

It also allows for a small bronze plaque to be placed on the building. Sassy.

So, the NRHP listing doesn’t provide any guarantees for the building’s longevity, but does open up some avenues of support. On balance, it would suggest that there’s hope for its preservation, or at least that Harris County hasn’t made the decision to tear it down immediately.