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Gone, but not forgotten: 4 formerly famous Houston attractions

Shamrock Hotel Postcard
Shamrock Hotel Postcard (American Oil & Gas Historical Society)

Whether they were reduced to rubble (e.g. The Shamrock Hotel, AstroWorld, Gilley’s Nightclub) or merely boarded up and abandoned so to speak (e.g. The Astrodome), some of Houston’s most iconic attractions just aren’t around anymore. These defunct destinations may have met their end, untimely or otherwise, but they still loom large in the city’s history.

Peruse the list below for a look back at some of the city’s most memorable lost landmarks.

Gilley’s

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Legendary Pasadena nightclub Gilley’s, once billed the world’s largest honky-tonk, operated from 1970 to 1989.

Upon opening, the club filled to capacity nightly, according to the Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas. Notable attractions included a shooting gallery, showers for truckers, a rodeo arena with mechanical bulls, pool tables, punching bags, and a massive dance floor. In its heyday, Gilley’s repped a 6,000-person capacity and it was even listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest honky-tonk.

The club was immortalized in the 1980 film “Urban Cowboy," which ushered Texas honky-tonk culture into the national spotlight and launched a craze around mechanical bulls. The movie is adapted from a 1978 Esquire cover story of the same name detailing the rocky romance of two Gilley’s regulars, Dew Westbrook and Betty Helmer, renamed Bud and Sissy in the film and played by John Travolta and Debra Winger. Most of the movie was filmed inside Gilley’s. Following its on-screen debut, the club became one of the Houston area’s biggest tourist attractions and in 1984, The Academy of Country Music awarded Gilley’s the title “best nightclub of the year.”

Gilley’s burned down in 1990. The Pasadena Independent School District purchased the lot in 1992. In 2005, the school district demolished the remaining structures and built a middle school on the site, according to the Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas.

Astrodome

Aerial view of the Astrodome.
Aerial view of the Astrodome. (KPRC2)

Once billed the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” the Astrodome is arguably Houston’s most iconic landmark.

With its 9.5-acre footprint, domed roof and electrifying scoreboard, the gleaming Astrodome, officially named the Harris County Domed Stadium (it didn’t stick), debuted in 1965 as the world’s first multi-purpose, domed sports stadium. Sealed off against Houston’s less than ideal weather, the futuristic, climate-controlled space was considered the first air-conditioned event venue of its size.

For nearly forty years, the gargantuan structure played host to baseball, football and basketball games, Muhammad Ali boxing matches, rodeos, concerts by stars like Elivs Presley, Bob Dylan, Judy Garland, the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Madonna and Selena, and memorable events like tennis champion Billie Jean King’s legendary triumph over Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match and the 1992 Republican convention where Houston resident George Bush won the Republican presidential nomination.

For a time, the Astrodome was among the most-visited man-made attractions in the country, outranked only by the Golden Gate Bridge and the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. But by 1996, the Houston Oilers had abandoned the Astrodome, and the state, for a new name and better prospects in Tennessee. And come 1999, the Astros ditched the stadium for Enron Field. The Astrodome fell into disrepair and has sat largely vacant since 2005, when it was briefly reopened as an emergency shelter for thousands of New Orleans residents fleeing Hurricane Katrina.

In 2014, the Astrodome was listed on the National Register of Historic Places both for its architectural and cultural significance. In 2017, it was designated a state antiquity landmark, joining the auspicious ranks of the Alamo and State Capitol.

AstroWorld

Photo: Josh Burdick
Photo: Josh Burdick

The Astrodome was just one element of the Astrodomain complex, which also included the Astroworld Hotel and AstroWorld park. Opened just three years after the Astrodome, the 57-acre amusement park quickly became one of Houston’s most popular attractions.

The park was divided into villages, which included Americana Square, Nottingham Village, Oriental Village, Mexicana, Western Junction and European Village.

Notable attractions included the Astroneedle, an observation tower, and rides like the SkyScreamer, a 10-story freefall ride, the Texas Cyclone, a replica of the Coney Island Cyclone, Greezed Lightnin', a loop coaster, Thunder River, a river rapids ride, Mayan Mind Bender, an indoor roller coaster, the Astroway, a skyway ride from Switzerland that produced a bird’s-eye view of AstroWorld, and the Alpine Sleigh Ride, which took passengers past glaciers and waterfalls, according to the Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas.

AstroWorld closed on October 30, 2005 at the end of its 37th season. Over the course of several months, the park was dismantled, demolished, and cleared, according to the Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas.

Shamrock Hotel

Shamrock Hotel Postcard
Shamrock Hotel Postcard (American Oil & Gas Historical Society)

The legendary hotel, which once stood on the southwest corner of Main Street and Bellaire Boulevard (now West Holcombe Boulevard), was built between 1946 and 1949 by Glenn McCarthy, “King of the Wildcatters,” and one of the richest men in Texas, whose transformation from a college dropout to oil tycoon inspired the Edna Ferber novel ''Giant'' and the movie of the same name starring James Dean.

In her best-selling book, Ferber modeled the fictional “Conquistador” after the Shamrock, which was briefly featured in the subsequent film adaptation, according to the Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas.

Done up in 63 shades of green, a nod to McCarthy’s Irish heritage, the eighteen-story, 1,100-room hotel, the largest built in the United States in the 1940s, was built for a reported $21 million, according to the Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas.

Among its many notable attractions were a five-story, 1,000-car garage, a landscaped garden, terrace, and a swimming pool supposedly so large it could accommodate waterskiing exhibitions.

By 1952, McCarthy’s personal fortunes had turned. He defaulted on a loan and ultimately lost the hotel. In 1954, the property was acquired by the Hilton Hotels Corporation, which operated it as the Shamrock Hilton, according to the Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas.

In December 1985, the Hilton Hotels Corporation sold the landmark hotel to the Texas Medical Center, which had no need for a luxury hotel and intended to tear it down.

On St. Patrick’s Day 1986, the 40th anniversary of the hotel’s groundbreaking, 3,000 people, including McCarthy, demonstrated at the hotel to protest its demolition, according to the Texas State Historical Association Handbook of Texas.

Their protestations were ignored, and in 1987, amid the widespread public disapproval, the hotel, swimming pool and gardens were razed, paved over and replaced with a surface parking lot. Only the hotel’s parking garage survived the demolition. McCarthy died the following year.

Today, the site of the Shamrock Hotel is home to the Texas A&M Institute of Biosciences and Technology.

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What do you remember about these lost Houston landmarks? What else would you include on this list? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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