Huntsville residents share fond memories of the Astrodome

The “Eighth Wonder of the World” will soon be getting a much-needed makeover as Harris County commissioners voted this week to approve initial funding for a $105 million redevelopment of the Houston Astrodome.

After years of debate which, at times, saw the historic venue and a wrecking ball coming dangerously close together, the first package of funding totaling $10.5 million will be spent on the new project’s design. 

With more than five decades of events taking place under the ‘Dome, many Huntsville residents have fond memories of the venue and are excited to see the old stadium have a chance at new life. 

“I’m glad to see it being put to use for something again,” former Huntsville Hornets standout Tim Gray said Tuesday. Gray, along with the 2003 Huntsville Hornet squad, had the chance to take the field at the Astrodome during the second round of the Class 4A state baseball playoffs and has fond memories of walking onto the AstroTurf for the first time. 

“It was just one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences,” Gray said. “To be able to play on the same field where (Craig) Biggio, (Jeff) Bagwell and those guys played was a pretty neat experience. We ended up winning that series in a decisive game three and it was a blast. It was the place to play back then in 2003, so it was neat to get to play there. It was a lot of fun.”

“The first time I walked into the Astrodome was with my Little League baseball team in fifth grade,” remembered KSAM on-air personality Kooter Roberson. “The Astrodome was such a big deal that people dressed up to go to ballgames. Men were sitting there in coats and ties and women were dressed up with their hats on and frilly dresses. People really dressed up to go. That was one thing that really struck me. …

“I got to sit on the field a few times back in the old days when my dad was driving equipment trucks for one of the high schools in Baytown,” Roberson added. “The band was taking the field at halftime, so they set up folding chairs on the field and I got to sit up there with them, which was pretty cool. That was about eighth grade and I think the Jets were playing the Oilers that night so Joe Namath was there. That was awesome.”

First opened in 1965, the Astrodome played host to the Houston Oilers football team, served as the Houston Astros’ second home and was the world’s first multi-purpose domed sports stadium. It also served as the primary venue for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and hosted countless other collegiate and high school sporting events throughout the years. 

“The first time I ever called a game there was 1983, I think,” Roberson said. “Sam Houston was still in the Lone Star Conference and they were playing Texas A&I, which is now Texas A&M Kingsville, and they had a neutral-site game there and I got to do the (public address duties). I got to sit there and say ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the Astrodome’ and that was pretty cool.”   

The once-modern marvel has now sat vacant for 17 years. Most recently in 2014, voters shot down a $217 million bond proposal to fund a massive renovation for the ’Dome.

New renovation plans call for the bottom floors of the county-owned Astrodome to be raised for parking so that it can be used for festivals, conferences and commercial uses across more than 550,000 square feet of air-conditioned space.

The plan is the latest for a 51-year-old landmark that has vexed officials for years as they sought to repurpose it. It hasn’t housed a professional sports team since the Astros moved to Minute Maid Park in 2000. Two years later, NRG Stadium opened next door as the home of the NFL’s Houston Texans.

“I grew up with the Astrodome, like a lot of people did, and now you see it sitting down there like a big, festering boil and it makes me sad to see it like that,” Roberson added. “It was a big part of my growing up.”

Demolishing the Astrodome, which is designated a state antiquities landmark requiring state permission to alter or demolish, would have cost between $35 to $50 million, county officials have said. For the new project, about one-third of the $105 million cost, or roughly $35 million, would come from the county’s general fund, which is largely made up of revenue from property taxes.

Several obstacles remain that could derail the latest plan. For instance, if the estimated cost of construction grows much beyond $105 million, then commissioners will have to decide whether to continue.

“I just really hope it comes through because it’s such a political hot potato down there,” Roberson said. “I would hope they can work it out, because I would hate for it to just be raised and then taken away from us. It’s just so sad to see it the way it is.”

 

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

Wynne Home to celebrate 10th anniversary Friday

For the past decade, the Wynne Home Arts Center has provided a cultural haven for art lovers of all ages in Huntsville and Walker County.

From informative art classes and exciting cultural events, to revolving shows from nationally renowned artists, there always seems to be something new happening at the Wynne Home.

The art center’s staff will be commemorating the center’s 10th anniversary Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., welcoming visitors to the historic home to share in the celebration. 

“This Friday, we’re inviting people just to drop by throughout the day and have a cup of cider with us,” said Linda Pease, the City of Huntsville’s cultural service coordinator. “We’ll have music going and we’ll be giving away small mementos to celebrate.” 

Visitors are welcome to stop by and enjoy a beverage while taking in the painting exhibit that’s currently on display entitled “In the Classic Tradition” by Nancy Hines. Attendees can also tour the home and explore the permanent art fixtures on display as well.

Since the home was gifted to the City of Huntsville in 1998 by way of Mrs. Samuella Palmer, who gave the home individually and as trustee of the Ruth Wynne Hollinstead estate, the historical home has served as a vital cultural resource and a permanent tribute to the Wynne family’s connection to the community and passion for the arts. 

“It was a grand gift from Samuella on behalf of Ruth, who was deceased by the time that the house was given,” Pease said Tuesday. “I am ever thankful that the city accepted it and agreed to the donor’s terms, which stipulated that it be used for cultural activities and historic preservation. That was the first amazing step. 

“In 2006, we moved over here in July, and by that September, we were open. It’s been a grand journey since then. At the time it was planned, we didn’t have another gallery in town except for the galleries at the university. Since then, we’ve just added more and more events and that’s been a really good thing.

“When people walk into this house, especially children, their jaws really do drop,” Pease added. “We have, I think, a really marvelous historic home for people to visit and people love to visit historic homes. We tell the children and anyone who visits that this home belongs to everyone. It’s free to come in and visit and is such a wonderful place to look at art.”

With repairs to the Wynne Home’s roof currently underway, the staff have planned a simple celebration Friday, while looking forward to hosting to a larger, more interactive public event in November. 

“For the celebration on November 19, our intent is to have various tables, booths and tents set up on the grounds so that people can experience art in different ways,” Pease said. 

“We hope to have performances going on as well and the Friends of The Wynne Home have agreed to provide food for the event. We’re looking forward to people coming and enjoying a festival-like atmosphere. We think it will be fun for everyone.

“It was always envisioned that the Wynne Home would become more and more important to the city and I trust that is true because we see so many people, of all different age groups, come and enjoy the home. It’s a splendid place and we’re fortunate to have major American artists come and show work here.”

For more information on the Wynne Home, visit www.wynnehomeartscenter.com or call (936) 291-5424.

A ticket to ride

They start their days just like everyone else.

Dropping kids off at school, making the coffee, packing a lunch. It’s all pretty standard until they get ready to hit the road.

Instead of buckling in a seatbelt and turning up the radio, a handful of Huntsville residents are strapping on a helmet, donning more comfortable shoes and taking off on a bike for their morning commute.

“When I was in grade school, there really weren’t any other choices. You had your bike and off you went,” Sam Houston State business professor Darren Grant said. “I found early on that I really enjoyed the freedom and being outside.”

Grant has been commuting primarily by bike since the first grade and uses it as an opportunity to escape the confines of a car while getting in some daily exercise.

“I’ve bicycle commuted for all but eight years of my life since I was 6 years old,” Grant said. “You get to see the world in a different way because you get to take it step-by-step.”

Living in the Forest Hills subdivision, Grant has a three- or five-mile commute to work at the university each day, depending on traffic. After being at it so long, he’s got it down to a science.

“When you’ve commuted by bicycle as long as I have, you learn to recognize how calm a person behind the wheel is,” Grant said. “When there’s a driver that looks to be hasty, and you can easily tell the drivers that have that type of style, then you know to give them a little extra distance. There’s a big difference between the commute going home and the commute going in. People are usually relaxed going in, but at 5 or 5:30, when they’re coming home, they’re usually a bit more agitated.”

By far the most immediate benefit of a bike commute is the physical aspect. Even a small ride each day provides the body with an exercise boost, burning calories and improving overall health while increasing energy levels.

“It’s helped me lose weight, which is really why I started it,” said Ron Gunnels, a partner at Gunnels Restroom Services. “I’m 42 years old and when you run out of breath just bending over, you start looking at your body and you know you have to change something.”

Gunnels, who also lives in the Forest Hills subdivision, started commuting to his job a little more than a year and a half ago and has seen big benefits in that short time frame.

“When I started out, I couldn’t even go around the circle in my street, but I just stayed on it. It becomes fun once you get used to it,” Gunnels said. “I went from a size 40 waist to a 32, I’ve lost about 45 pounds, my breathing is better and my overall health, energy, flexibility are too. I really think it’s going to help extend my life.

“When you start biking, it’s kind of contagious. You start watching what you eat and leading a healthier lifestyle. I’ll ride back and forth to work, ride around town, run errands, really anything that I can do on my bike, I’ll do it daily. Now, I’m averaging over 100 miles and about 10 hours of riding each week.”

“It’s really become part of my workout schedule,” Grant added. “Some days, I’ll run and other days I’ll bike. As I’m getting older and can’t run every day, the bike has really given me a way to maintain a consistent exercise schedule that I couldn’t sustain with running or other sports.”

While the physical benefits are universally celebrated, some choose to commute simply because it’s a convenient option that takes stress out of what could be a hectic morning commute.

“I really dislike driving,” Sam Houston State biology professor Carly Tribull said. “I moved here from New York, so I was really used to public transportation, or riding my bike. Plus, I didn’t want to pay for parking at the university, especially for such a short distance.”

Tribull had a far longer commute in New York, but now that she lives close to the university and just a few minutes from her office, the bike is her best option and also provides a good fitness boost.

“I went from what was a 40-minute commute each way in New York, to what’s essentially now a seven-minute bike commute, so I’m not seeing the same health benefits as I was, but it certainly adds something,” Tribull added. “I would walk, but there’s no continuous sidewalk and I would be forced to walk on the street. So in a way, it’s safer for me to be on a bike and I’m moving faster.

“I still go to the gym, because seven minutes of biking doesn’t really make up for caloric intake. But, on the days when I don’t have time to make it to the gym, which does happen occasionally,  it doesn’t feel like I’ve been sitting down all day.”

Perhaps the most exciting feature of a bicycle commute is the connection that’s achieved to one’s surroundings. Beyond the confines of metal, glass and steel, bike commuters say they get to experience their town like never before.

“You really get a chance to see a side of your city that you just don’t experience when you’re driving,” Gunnels said. “Whether you’re going through the Avenues and looking at some of the funky yards, or riding around Sam Houston’s gravesite, or up the hills on Gospel Hill, you get to see everything from a different perspective.”

“Instead of being removed from your environment, like you are in a vehicle, you’re right there in it,” Grant added. “From a video game standpoint, it’s like the difference between playing Grand Theft Auto, where you’re part of this huge world, and playing Cruis’n USA, where all you can really do is drive.

“You learn a lot about the landscape and a lot about how people interact with the landscape. People’s lifestyles and their attitudes toward life can reflect the environment that they’re in. I miss the days when children could bike to school. I feel like the ability to do that gave me a level of independence and responsibility that served me well. Looking back, it was a bigger part of my growing up than I recognized at the time.”

A common theme through bike commuters is safety. Knowing that they are more susceptible to injury makes bike riders more aware of their surroundings, along with adding a level of social consciousness.

“You really have to keep your eyes open and stay in a heightened state of awareness,” Grant said. “It’s exactly the way you should be when you drive as well. You want to be able to keep track of everything that’s happening around you. I don’t think that anyone who bikes regularly takes safety casually. I always wear my helmet when I ride, I’d feel naked without it.”

“I think commuting this way is really good in the sense of public visibility, to show people that you don’t need to have a car. It’s a funny experience showing up in a grocery store parking lot and putting two bags on your bike and then riding away to the amazement of people,” Tribull said. “I think the supremacy of cars, especially in Huntsville, is a bit annoying. I think it would be a good idea if we could decrease the number of students that live in Huntsville who still drive to campus. If we could get more people on bikes, maybe we could end up having better public infrastructure, like bike lanes or sidewalks.”