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Sports Venues and Historic Preservation: What the Astrodome tells us about heritage

One of the major issues facing historic preservation appears to be making the case for the preservation and protection of relatively recent sites and structures. I think this is particularly the case for buildings that were, at the time, considered futuristic or having a space-age design, or represented some kind of forward-thinking, progressive age – in fact, the polar-opposite of heritage. A recent non-sport example would be something like the site of the Kennedy Space Center, which seems to be much more about the glorious past of the US Space Program than about any kind of future discovery. Seemingly overnight, the site went from a symbol of the future to almost a relic of the past, although in some respects it still exists in a kind-of liminal space where there are still echoes of a future to come. Of course, the Kennedy Space Center still has a purpose, primarily as a tourist attraction as well as the site of occasional launches from private firms, and as such is probably spared from any real threat. However, most recent historic structures aren’t so fortunate, and it can sometimes be difficult to position them as worthy of preservation and protection.

Many sports stadia and venues from the recent sporting past also exist in a kind-of liminal space, particularly as cities and communities struggle with whether the multi-use, multipurpose venues built in the 1960s and 70s are worthy of designation, protection, and repurposing. I have argued many times – both in this forum and in academic publications – that nothing is so dead as an unused and abandoned stadium. A stadium can’t often simply exist to exist, as other historic properties might. In many cases, such as in Atlanta, St. Louis, and Philadelphia amongst many others, multipurpose venues were simply demolished. However, the case of the Houston Astrodome, and the current debates over of what to do with it, might add to the broader debate about the preservation of recent sites and buildings.

Curator_Houston_RIPAstros

The history of the Astrodome is well documented, though needless to say it has arguably been the most important sporting structure – in events, design, and legacy – in the US in the past 50 years. It is undeniably an important building in telling the story of American sports since the mid 1960s, and if it were a more conventional building the debate over its preservation wouldn’t be in doubt. However, because it is a large, abandoned sports venue, it becomes a little more complicated. There remains an ongoing debate about what to do with it, from the unusual suggestion of maintaining it as site for “ruin porn” tourism to the more conventional adaptive reuse options, but the fact that it hasn’t been torn down and that there are various proposals about what to do with it is encouraging – not just for those who value the building itself, but for proponents of a much broader understanding of historic preservation. The idea that sports venues are not only icons of place but repositories for memories and intergenerational bonding, sites where spectacular feats happened and amazing people performed, and sources of all kinds of artistic inspiration, are not new. However, the notion that the much-riducled multipurpose sports venue also possess heritage qualities is unique, and might make us re-think all kinds of structures from our recent past. Of course, we probably don’t want to save every stadium or every building built since the early 60s – this is simply neither feasible nor desirable. But, the example of the Astrodome demonstrates that historic properties come in all shapes and sizes, and that heritage value is much more than simply a case of a structure being particularly old or particularly ornate.


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