Houston offers much to travelers. We visited Houston for business and concerts, but still saw other sights. Here are some of our favorites.
The Houston Astrodome
Madeline and I have a special connection to the Houston Astrodome. When we were 13 years old, we attended a Houston Astros major league baseball game during its inaugural 1965 season. Madeline’s mom and dad picked us up at my grandparent’s house in Stephenville, Texas. We were there for summer vacation. At the time, I lived in Chicago and Madeline lived in Fort Worth, Texas. I guess our parents conspired to allow us to hang out together and give themselves a break from kids.
We drove to Houston, where we arrived at a nice motel and enjoyed the outdoor pool. Many Texas hotels and motels had pools to keep people cool in the Texas summer before air conditioning. The next day, we went to the Astrodome and were amazed. I loved baseball and played little league. I wanted to become a major leaguer like every 13-year-old boy in the 1960s.
Fifty years later, we went back to see the Astrodome and were surprised to find it still standing. The Astros now play at Minute Maid Park. And the Houston Texans play at NRG Stadium. It’s a bit dated now, especially compared to the newer state-of-the-art stadiums.
The Astrodome was home to the Houston Astros for over three decades. It was the first domed stadium constructed for baseball. Judge Roy Hofheinz constructed a model of the domed stadium and presented it to National League owners in 1960 hoping to lure an MLB team to Houston. On October 17, 1960, Houston was awarded a franchise and voters approved an $18 million bond for construction of the stadium. Construction began January 3, 1962, and the baseball franchise, the Houston Colts 45s, began playing in April, 1962, at Colt Stadium, next to the new domed stadium still under construction. The Colt 45s played three seasons at Colt Stadium before moving into their new home. Both the Colt 45s and the stadium got new names. The Colt 45s became the Astros. The Harris County Dome Stadium was renamed the Astrodome.
The first baseball game played at the Astrodome was on April 9, 1965. This was an exhibition game against the New York Yankees. At the game, President Lyndon B Johnson threw out the ceremonial first pitch—wearing an Astros cap. Also attending was the Texas Governor John Connally. The evangelist Billy Graham soon declared the stadium the “eighth wonder of the world.”
Three days later, the Astros played their first official game at the Astrodome against the Philadelphia Phillies. Twenty-two astronauts from NASA simultaneously launched first pitches from the stands to the Astros players as MLB Commissioner Ford Frick and a throng of over 48,000 looked on. The Houston Oilers National Football League team started playing in the Astrodome in 1968.
The new stadium featured six levels of multi-colored seats that circled from the left-field foul pole, around home plate and to the right-field foul pole. Each of the 42,217 seats were cushioned. The Astrodome was one of the first stadiums to have luxury suites with 53.
They located one of the indoor technical marvels in center field. It was a two million dollar, 474-foot-long electronic scoreboard, home-run spectacular and display picture board. Major league baseball fans never had seen anything like it. The four-story Astrolite scoreboard’s ecstasy display triggered every time the home team hit a home run. The home run celebration was a 45-second electronic extravaganza in which stars danced, cowboys fired guns and bulls snorted to a rousing soundtrack. Even without home runs, the scoreboard set off after every Astros victory.
The Astrodome was also unique in that it had five restaurants located throughout the stadium. Before at ballparks, spectators got a hotdog, beer, peanuts and Crackerjack from vendors or booths along the walkways. The Astrodome had restaurants where you could sit and eat and watch the game. Revolutionary for the 1960s!
The Astrodome was twice as large as any single enclosure ever built before. The immense semi-transparent greenhouse ceiling was a marvel, like the great train sheds of Victorian Europe. It was designed to allow natural grass to receive sunlight. An unfortunate side effect: Astros outfielders lost fly balls in the glare. The transparent ceiling was painted over, which led to the grass dying. The solution? AstroTurf!
AstroTurf was invented for the Astrodome. Between innings the grounds crew wore spacesuits and helmets and cleaned the diamond with vacuums. A year later the Astrodome ranked third in America’s most-visited man-made attractions after the Golden Gate Bridge and Mount Rushmore.
Elvis filled the place more than once. Everyone from Evel Knievel and Muhammad Ali to Billy Graham and the Supremes had their names on the marquee. Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King fought the Battle of the Sexes here in 1973. In that historic tennis match, Billy Jean King won easily. Check out the movie, Battle of The Sexes for a dramatization of the event. It’s great!
Nolan Ryan threw one of his seven no-hitters in the dome. Refugees from Hurricane Katrina washed up here in 2005. The Astrodome briefly housed thousands of refugees who had been left homeless by Katrina. As many as 250,000 people from New Orleans landed in Houston after the disaster, and between 25,000 and 40,000 eventually made Houston their home.
By the mid-1990s, both the Astros and Oilers (NFL) began itching for new stadiums. After failing to receive funding for a new stadium, the Oilers moved to Tennessee and later became the Titans. In 1996, funding was approved for a new Astros ballpark in downtown Houston. The Astros played three more seasons at the Astrodome, playing their final game on October 9, 1999. In 2000 they moved into Minute Maid Park.
By 2000, it was clear that the once futuristic structure had become a monument to yesteryear. The public was divided about what to do with the Astrodome. Ideas filtered through various economic planning and zoning commissions. Finally, it was declared a historically protected landmark looking for a 21st-century purpose.
The Astrodome still stands. Nothing goes on there now. When they have football games or concerts at NRG Stadium, the Astrodome parking lot is used.
Madeline and I went there to take pictures. A polite parking attendant said to take our time. Nobody can enter the building these days, but the Astrodome is still a part of our history. We did get Madeline a charm for her travel bracelet, though!
The 8th Wonder Brewery
Though the address is on Dallas Street, the entrance to 8th Wonder Brewery is on Hutchins Street. But it since the site occupies almost an entire city block, it’s easy to find. There are at least three fun things to do here: (1) a great brewery; (2) history and memorabilia from Astrodome; and (3) David Adickes artwork.
If you’re wondering, 8th Wonder refers to the Astrodome. At the time of construction, Billy Graham called the Astrodome the eighth wonder of the world.
The brewery is first-rate, with a huge selection and lots of options for non-beer-drinkers, too. The food is tasty and compliments the beer selection. And the service was top-notch.
Seeing all the memorabilia from the Astrodome was fun for us since we saw an Astros baseball game at the Astrodome during its inaugural season in 1965.
We were surprised to find that that the Astrodome was still around—not used but still standing. The 8th Wonder Brewery serves as an homage to the famous Houston Astrodome, even though it is about seven miles away.
There is a large air-conditioned indoor area and a very large outdoor area surrounded by a fence. The fence surrounds the Beatles Sculpture created by David Adickes.
The We Love Houston sculpture stands nearby.
Come to the Brewery to drink great beer, immerse yourself in Astrodome history and enjoy some world-class art.
Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern
We learned of the Buffalo Bayou Park Cistern in an article in one of our Texas magazines, Texas Co-op Power. (The link has a great video!) There is so much to see in Houston, and this little gem wasn’t on our radar. But we were glad we added this stop to our itinerary.
We stayed at the Hyatt Regency Houston, which we highly recommend. It was a short ride from the hotel to the cistern.
I recommend parking in Lot H (1643 Memorial Dr.), which is about 100 yards from the entrance. The cistern does have parking, but the nearby skate park, local joggers and other park users fill it up quickly.
The cistern is an almost overlooked part of Buffalo Bayou Park, which covers 160 acres. There’s a visitors center where you can book a 30-minute guided tour of the park for $10.
Although it is called a cistern, it really was a reservoir. Built in 1926, this 87,500-square-foot space was one of Houston’s first underground reservoirs. Two hundred twenty-one concrete pillars reaching 25 feet high support the eight-inch-thick concrete roof. It feels like an underground aqueduct in Rome or Turkey.
The cistern worked for more than 80 years until an irreparable leak was found. It was decommissioned in 2007. The City of Houston condemned the reservoir and scheduled it for demolition. The city also considered using it for parking or mulch storage.
In 2010, the City of Houston was sourcing vendors to demolish the cistern. Luckily, the Buffalo Bayou Partnership (BBP) was developing the nearby $58 million Buffalo Bayou Park project and learned of the pending demolition. They recognized the historical and architectural significance of this highly unusual space. The BBP took over the development and maintenance of the space and repurposed the cistern into an interesting public space to house an ambitious program of rotating art installations.
We took the 30-minute guided tour. The Houston-based architecture and engineering firm, Page, was charged with designing a ground-level entry structure and making improvements to the shelf on the perimeter of the space to create a six-foot-wide, ADA- compliant walkway with guardrails. In May 2016, BBP opened the cistern to the public. It got its name when SWA Landscape Architect Kevin Shanley called it the cistern because it reminded him of the ancient Roman cisterns under Istanbul.
An interesting fact we learned on the tour: This is one of only two underground cisterns in the world that are open to the public. Guess where the other one is: Istanbul!
When we entered the cistern, was saw the 221 concrete columns in rows. It felt like we entered a subterranean temple. There wasn’t a lot of light. Our guide used his flashlight to bounce light off the ceiling that then reflected off the floor showing about six inches of water. It was like a reflecting pool. Think of the one in Washington D.C. but underground.
Our guide told us to be quiet and listen. She shouted and the echo reverberated all around us for about 15 seconds. She encouraged us to give it a try, and echoes reverberating all over the place.
The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston plans art exhibits including light and sound shows. They offer private tours and a photographer tour aimed at hobby photographers. You’ll get some great shots! Madeline isn’t a pro, but she took some great shots.
If you want to learn more about the Buffalo Bayou Park and its history, check out From Rendering to Reality: The Story of Buffalo Bayou Park. It’s written by Anne Olson, who is the long-time president of Buffalo Bayou Partnership, along with David Theis, who is a noted Houston writer.
Houston Downtown Tunnels
We’ve visited Houston a few times. When we were downtown, I wondered why we didn’t see more pedestrians during the workday. It turns out they were underground!
Deep in the heart of downtown Houston, there’s a seven-mile underground tunnel system that covers 95 city blocks. Folks working downtown know all about it. But tourists often do not.
The Houston Downtown Tunnels are a network of air-conditioned pedestrian walkways that link lots of major downtown office buildings. The tunnels were originally built in the 1930s linking two movie theaters. They expanded in the 50s and 60s. Now, they allow people working in downtown Houston to walk around town without having to step foot in the hot, Texas sun. People use the tunnels during the workday to do all sorts of things like gather for meetings, go to the bank, get a haircut or shoeshine and eat lunch.
Madeline and I saw similarities between Houston’s tunnels and those in Tokyo around the Japan Rail (JR) subway stations. People in Tokyo use the stations as places to get most anything done, and there are underground tunnels running all over with restaurants, shops and anything else you can think of. There are areas under Tokyo larger than many American malls.
We also thought of the Minneapolis and St. Paul Skyway system, which connects buildings above ground with enclosed bridges between downtown buildings. The system keeps people from freezing. Houston’s Downtown Tunnels prevent people from overheating.
Using the Downtown Tunnels is different, convenient and comfortable. We used the entrance from the Hyatt Regency Houston and wandered until we found a nice lunch spot. It’s worth a trip through the tunnels to say you’ve been to the Houston Underground!