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Just a few steps away from the site of Super Bowl 51, the 52-year-old Houston Astrodome is getting ready to earn another new nickname for itself:
"The Dome That Will Never Die."
Many still know it by its old nickname -- "The Eighth Wonder of the World."
But it hasn't hosted an event since 2008, leading some to call for its destruction after voters rejected a $217 million bond proposal to help save it in 2013.
"The Astrodome needs to be torn down for parking or green space in time for Super Bowl 2017," an anti-Astrodome group wrote on its Facebook page in May 2015.
Nearly every other abandoned NFL stadium has been torn down since the Astrodome opened as the world's first air-conditioned domed stadium in 1965. And it still costs about $170,000 per year in county tax funds to maintain.
Yet here it stands, saved from the scrapheap for one simple reason: People love it and consider it an asset, keeping alive an American monument once occupied by the Houston Astros, Houston Oilers, Elvis Presley and Muhammad Ali.
In September, Harris County commissioners approved the first part of a new plan -- to spend $105 million to repurpose the dome and get it to make money again as a convention facility and parking garage for 1,400 cars. Design and engineering studies for the plan will swing into gear a week after the Super Bowl at NRG Stadium next door Feb. 5.
"Name another building other than the Alamo in Texas that needs to be preserved," said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, the highest-elected official in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston. "It is what our area is known for. Just like the Eiffel Tower was supposed to be temporary but lived on, I think we need to keep the dome."
Its primary sports team tenants left for greener pastures nearly 20 years ago: The NFL's Oilers moved to Tennessee in 1997, followed by baseball's Astros, who moved across town in 2000. After being found unfit for occupancy in 2008, the dome serves as the biggest and most famous storage facility in Texas, including during the run-up to the Super Bowl, when it will house materials related to the week's festivities.
On Super Bowl Sunday, it will even get a special spotlight of sorts in the background of the game between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons.
"It will be lit for game day," said Joe Stinebaker, Emmett's director of communications.
It normally would be dark in the shadows of NRG Stadium, which opened in 2002. But this is a special occasion. It's also the rarest of stadium sights.
A second life
This is the only place in America where an active NFL stadium stands next to the vacated artifact it replaced. Normally, when a giant stadium has been rendered obsolete, it's eventually razed to save money and clear the way for new land use.
Not here, where the Astrodome opened with a bang off the bat of New York Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle -- the first indoor home run in baseball history. It was an exhibition game, but the novelty of the futuristic dome drew a sellout crowd of more than 47,000, including President Lyndon Johnson.
"The Astrodome will stand as a deserved tribute to the genius of its planners," Johnson predicted.
After that, Seattle, Minneapolis and Indianapolis built domes that have been replaced and destroyed.
In Atlanta, the Falcons just played their last game at the Georgia Dome, which soon will be imploded 25 years after it opened at a cost of $214million. That building will be supplanted by the $1.5billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium opening right next door.
In Michigan, the former domed stadium of the Detroit Lions is still standing -- sort of. The Pontiac Silverdome opened in 1975 and hosted a Super Bowl in 1982 before it was abandoned by the Lions in 2002, the year they moved downtown to Ford Field. Left to rot, the Silverdome's roof fell out a few years ago, and it's awaiting demolition.
By contrast, the county-owned Astrodome will survive indefinitely, fueled by nostalgia over what it once was and a sustainable vision of what it still can become. It originally cost about $35million to build, which would be about $270million today.
"The building is structurally sound, it's fully paid for and there is no question that it is an architectural and historic icon, not just for our community but for our nation and the world," Emmett told USA TODAY Sports. "To tear it down, it would cost over $30million, after which you would have nothing. I look at it more from a standpoint of, 'How do we make it more useful for generations to come without costing a lot of money?'"
Some still wouldn't have missed it if it had been flattened by now, including the Houston Texans, who moved into NRG Stadium as an NFL expansion team in 2002.
Elvis left the building
For the NFL Texans, it arguably would be better to remove the old dome from the neighborhood, especially if its county maintenance money could be put to better use.
"The Texans have indicated over the years they wanted it torn down to make room for parking," Emmett said.
The trick was coming up with a solution that could address such concerns and still preserve it. In September, they threaded that civic needle. The plan is to build two levels of parking space 30 feet underground, where the building's playing surface used to be.
On top of that, the plan calls for a giant new main floor for vast convention space.
In effect, that means the dome's original baseball and football surface would be a parking lot 30 feet below where the action would be. Concrete and cars would crowd the space where Nolan Ryan pitched a no-hitter for the Astros in 1981 and where running back Earl Campbell rushed for 199 yards for the Oilers one Monday night in 1978.
It's sort of a sacred ground for American culture. Elvis Presley played six shows there in 1970, drawing more than 200,000 combined.
"It scares me," Presley said of the dome beforehand, according to transcripts. "It's a big place, man."
The Rolling Stones rocked the house, too. So did boxing legend Ali, who won all four of his fights at the Astrodome from 1966 to 1971. In 1973, tennis legend Billie Jean King thumped Bobby Riggs there in the "Battle of the Sexes."
Under its future plan, the biggest attractions at the dome might be festivals, boat shows and oil rigs at the Offshore Technology Conference.
"They can bring in a six-story oil rig model, prop it up in the middle of the Astrodome floor and the thousands of people who are coming in for that can park underneath there, ride up the elevator and see it," Stinebaker told USA TODAY Sports.
Others might just want to walk in and look up at that giant ceiling, remembering what it was like when the Astrodome's Astroturf looked like a bright green lake of carpet encircled by the rainbow-colored rows of seats above. That's what many did in 2015, when the dome celebrated its 50th anniversary. An estimated 25,000 people showed up for that stroll down memory lane.
Next week, there will be no public access because of security concerns. The Astrodome never hosted a Super Bowl. But Stinebaker said it still will be spruced up as a background prop on Super Sunday, when the interior lights will be turned on to shine through the roof, along with blue lighting to shine on the exterior.
Fifty-two years after that big blast by Mantle, it will still be quite a sight.
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