Roy “the Judge” Hofheinz, former mayor of Houston and the man who built the Astrodome, was an extravagant, boisterous personality, a man whose life accomplishments matched perfectly his outsized character and quirky genius. Large girthed, with a taste for flamboyant, colorful clothing, Cadillac limousines, and his ever-present cigar, Hofheinz had the ability to conceive and execute outrageously progressive ideas that stamped both the physical and political landscape of Houston with his own definitive touch.
Young and Successful
Born the son of a laundry truck driver on April 10, 1912, in Beaumont, Texas, Roy Mark Hofheinz began working to support his mother after his father was killed in an auto accident when Roy was fifteen. In the true spirit of a self-made entrepreneur, encouraged by his mother to discipline and develop his talents, young Hofheinz was hawking player programs at high school sporting events for a dime a piece, while studying to accelerate his graduation from school at the age of 16.
Immediately after finishing high school, Hofheinz, a highly gifted orator, landed a temporary job with the Democratic National Convention, which was held in Houston in 1928. At the Convention, Hofheinz formed a close and enduring friendship with another young prodigy of the time, future President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, who was 20 years old at the time. Johnson greatly admired Hofheinz’s political talents. “If I could prepare and deliver my speeches as well as Roy Hofheinz, I could be President of the United States,” Johnson once remarked, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Hofheinz always seemed to move faster and think bigger than the average mortal, completing a law degree through accelerated studies at Rice University, University of Houston, and finally the Houston Law School by the time he reached the age of 19. During this period, he also met and married fellow law student Irene Cafcalas, with whom he would eventually raise three children: a daughter, Dene, and sons Fred and Roy Mark, Jr.
In a blazing, nearly meteoric rise for someone so young, Hofheinz was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1934, where he served two years before his election to the coveted and influential position of Harris County Judge in 1936. A lost election bid (due perhaps in part to Hofheinz’s tendency towards public confrontations with political opponents) for a third term as County Judge resulted in a seamless metamorphosis into media mogul.
Fortune and Notoriety
With none of his early whiz kid shine diminished by the political loss, Hofheinz began a career as a radio disc jockey and lawyer. He eventually established or held interests in a network of radio and television stations including what would eventually become KBME Houston, KSOX Harlingen, and KKYX San Antonio, among several others. Along the way, through his media endeavors, law practice, and a side business involving salvaged steel slag resold for road construction, Hofheinz also established for himself a multimillion-dollar fortune.
Hofheinz’s talent for political speechmaking and drive to change aspects of culture he disliked did not desert him, however, and he successfully ran for mayor of the City of Houston in 1952. A forward thinking individual, Hofheinz was criticized heavily for his desire to remove ‘white only’ signs from public facilities in the city. In typical tornadic and energetic fashion, he went ahead with what he thought should be done, regardless of the opposition. After the unannounced removal of the signs at public libraries, Hofheinz was confronted by a wealthy constituent. One incident resulting from the signage decision was recounted in Texas Monthly: “‘I won’t let my children go to the library,’ a woman complained. ‘I don’t know what they might catch!’ The Judge leaned back in his chair. ‘Maybe tolerance,’ he said.”
“The Judge” served two terms as mayor for the City of Houston, but his hard-charging personality and risk-taking nature created tensions that culminated in a public spectacle in 1954 when Hofheinz ordered the arrests of four members of City Council after they refused to attend a special session he had called. Amid further contention, Council repaid the favor by impeaching Hofheinz. The back and forth fire continued, with Hofheinz refusing to recognize the impeachment and a subsequent charter amendment to recall all city officials and hold another election. A battle-weary public revolted by replacing Hofheinz in the following mayoral election. That election marked the end of Hofheinz’s ventures into official public service, but it was only the beginning of his efforts to develop and enhance the City of Houston.
The Doomed Dream
It was reportedly after a trip to Rome, where Hofheinz stood in awe at the grand concept of the Colosseum, that an idea took root in his mind to create something similar in Houston, a place for events on a scale more vast than the ancient Romans had ever contrived. Hofheinz described his foundational visit to Rome (a story that itself might well have been exaggerated) in Sports Illustrated: “Mama [Hofheinz’s wife] and I were standing there looking at the Colosseum . . . It was a large, round facility, and most of the stadiums in the U.S. had been built to conform to the shape of the playing fields. Rectangular.”
A lifelong sports fan, Hofheinz conceived a vision for an unprecedented type of athletic stadium, a completely covered and air-conditioned facility that would revolutionize prospects for drawing a Major League Baseball team, and large crowds of fans, to humid, hot, mosquito-filled Houston.
Relieved from his duties as mayor, Hofheinz immersed himself in stacks of books about domed buildings. He controlled the Houston Sports Association with his partner Robert Smith, and used the association as a platform from which to push the heavily criticized prototype for a domed, glass-ceiling stadium. He pitched the idea relentlessly to investors, consulted with city officials, and hashed out plans with visionary architect Buckminster Fuller. A futuristic idealist with a passion for the concept of geodesic domes, Fuller’s work and advice was foundational to the early concept of the building project that would be dubbed “The Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Houston Astrodome.
After years of wrangling, Hofheinz finally managed to garner enough support for his project to facilitate a commitment from Major League Baseball to bring the Colt .45s (later renamed the Houston Astros) to play at the stadium, and to have it financed through a bond vote providing the 31-and-a-half million dollars needed to build it. The Astrodome was completed, and like all other wonders of the world, it drew flocks of the curious to see for themselves the building that made international headlines and put Houston on the map as an up-and-coming global city with an eye to the future. The stadium opened on April 9, 1965, in a magnificent ceremony, overseen by Judge Hofheinz himself, now owner of the Houston Astros and the holder of a 40-year lease on the Astrodome. The Astros’s opening game boasted an attendance by then President Lyndon B. Johnson along with his wife, Lady Bird Johnson.
The original Astrodome guidebook introduced the monolithic structure to the public in all its initial glory and pomp: “The Astrodome is the Taj Mahal of all stadia, from ancient Rome’s Colosseum even to the present day. Once a Texas swamp, its 260-acre setting now enfolds a sparkling diamond whose brilliance is refracted ’round the world. It is beyond compare, because nothing like it has ever been built before. This colossal amphitheater, built at a cost of $38,000,000 is located six miles from downtown Houston, and is served by a radius of roads making it easily the most accessible stadium in the world.”
Everything inside the dome was calculated on the same scale of “big and bigger” as the structure itself. A giant scoreboard (then the largest in the world), was installed, featuring a steambreathing bull that lit up every time the home team scored. There were plush, upscale skylight boxes on the upper levels of the stands, where business could be mixed with the enjoyment of a game for those who could afford it. Velvet and gold-laden apartment and office accommodations were built for Judge Hofheinz himself, behind the right-field scoreboard. Hofheinz’s private facilities at the dome also featured a shooting gallery and a private putting green. Here Hofheinz resided, at the top of his kingdom, like an emperor on his throne.
The initial impact on Houston, and on baseball fans at large, of this new, unnatural wonder, was reported by Sports Illustrated, “There was a mania to get inside the Dome that first year,’ said Astrodomophile Chuck Pool, a former Astro publicist who is now media-relations director for the Florida Marlins. ‘There was a Boy Scout Circus in the Dome in 1965. Ordinarily, the Scouts would sell 50,000 tickets for these things, but maybe 3,000 people would attend. People bought tickets as a donation. But in 1965 they sold 60,000 tickets, and everyone with a ticket showed up to watch the Boy Scouts, with thousands more outside screaming to get in.”
Astrodomain and Celestial Suite
Hofheinz took the far-out idea of an air-conditioned, fully-domed stadium even further by developing the surrounding area into a sort of tourist park, dubbed the “Astrodomain.” Further seems to have been second nature to a man like Hofheinz; he built four luxury hotels, the crown jewel of which was the Astroworld Hotel, where Hofheinz designed a private suite for himself and his second wife, Mary Frances, along with top-of-the-line luxury accommodations that drew the world’s most well-known and monied people.
The Celestial Suite was an elaborate penthouse apartment, the pinnacle accommodation available at the hotel. Hollywood stars and musical icons, political figures and the ultra-wealthy were known to book the lavish rooms when visiting Houston. Paper City Magazine recounted the grand opening, “The Celestial Suite [was] unveiled to Houston society December 18, 1969, in a grand occasion where guests toured the splendid, palatial, and extravagantly realized rooms that went for $2,500 a night, an astounding price – it even made the 1997 Guiness Book of World Records as the most expensive hotel suite in the world – thus generating even more publicity for the hotel and the Astrodomain.”
The Astrodomain also included a world-class amusement park named Astroworld (which at one point boasted another experimental concept, outdoor air-conditioning), providing the latest and most magnificent thrills in roller coaster development. The area made room to accommodate Hpfheinz’s purchase of a large stake in Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. The Judge ordered a custom railroad car, complete with engine and track, to escort visitors around his domain. The car was dubbed Astrodoma, and was outfitted with viewing platforms at its front and back from which Hofheinz was known to give impromptu speeches.
The Legacy Lives On
There is an equal and opposite reaction for every action, however, and perhaps it was the case that the sheer scope and size of Hofheinz’s ideas would cause them to eventually begin to wear thin. The Astrodomain development cost Hofheinz personally, and as a recession hit in the early 1970s, the self-made man’s empire began to crumble. Hofheinz was involved in a costly lawsuit over plans to build another domed stadium in New York, and after a trial lasting two decades, he lost the suit and was unable to recoup substantial investments and expenditures.
In 1970, Hofheinz had a stroke from which he never fully recovered. The Astrodomain was heavily in debt, and Hofheinz lost control of the enterprise when it fell into the hands of creditors. He sold his remaining shares of his Astro empire in 1975. The Astros team was sold to new investors, and the Astrodome itself came under new management. Hofheinz died from a heart attack at his Houston home in 1982 at the age of 70. He was buried at Glenwood Cemetery in Houston. Hofheinz was inducted into the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.
The last Houston Astros game was played at the Astrodome in 1999, and the future of the building became the topic of heated debate following the team’s move to downtown Minute Maid Park. In 2016, Harris County officials approved a plan to revitalize the building, at a cost of $105,000,000, a project heavily lobbied for by Hofheinz’s children. The facility will be used for the annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, as well as various festivals and conferences. The Judge would likely be proud.
The life of Roy Hofheinz was a colorful extravaganza and bold execution of unusual ideas. He was a driving force of personality with a single-minded dedication to bettering his city, who impacted generations of Houstonians. Dinn Mann, grandson of the Judge, wrote: “Here was a man who went against the grain, who tried to do the best rather than the obvious. He wanted Houston to have Sinatra, Elvis, the circus, never-before-seen luxury suites, cushioned stadium seats, Evel Knievel, Muhammad Ali fights, Houston versus UCLA, a scoreboard spectacular like no other.”
Hofheinz’s son Fred, who served as Houston’s mayor in his own right during the 1970s, remembered his father during an interview with Paper City Magazine, “My father had the world’s greatest curiosity. He was interested in everything, about everything. He didn’t sleep very much. He truly was a renaissance man.”