Real Estate / High-Rises

Inside Roy Hofheinz’s Lavish Private Penthouse Suite

Astrodome Creator’s Space-Age Jewel of a Sky-High Home is Remarkably Still Intact — and Stunning

BY

Houston lived large in the 1960s – and no one lived larger than Judge Roy Hofheinz, the gentleman who brought Major League Baseball to Houston, the original owner of the Houston Astros.

This charismatic kingmaker also created the Astrodomain Empire, which included the extraordinary Celestial Suite, ensconced in the penthouse of the Astroworld Hotel. The jewel of his space-age domain, this time capsule is remarkably intact nearly half a century after its opening, having lain vacant for years.

PaperCity peers through the dusty vestiges of the Celestial Suite, in a tribute to the Judge whose 1962 expansion team, the Colt .45s morphed into the Astros in 1965 in time for the grand opening of their new home — the Judge’s stadium monument inspired by both Buckminster Fuller and the Roman Colosseum, the Astrodome.

The Astroworld Hotel was more than a hotel investment property in the Astrodomain complex. Its extravagant seven-figure (in ’60s dollars) penthouse, known as the Celestial Suite, was for a memorable four years, 1969 to 1973, the home of the exuberant and enigmatic Judge Roy Hofheinz.

Astroworld Hotel, shown in this vintage postcard circa 1969 to early 1970s, was the flagship hotel property of Judge Roy Hofheinz Astrodomain empire. (astroworldhotel.com)

It’s where he and his second wife, Mary Frances (née Gougenheim), entertained Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Lyndon Johnson, and Muhammad Ali. The hotel today is the Crowne Plaza and sits across from NRG Stadium and the shell of the Astrodome.

Few remember that the hotel, with its understated and functional modernist architecture, was the seat of the Hofheinz sports, media, and entertainment conglomerate, which encompassed 500 acres, ownership of the Astros, the Astroworld amusement park, a quartet of hotels and motels including the Astroworld Hotel, the Astro Bank and Astrohall, all spun around the gem at its center: the world’s first indoor stadium, the Astrodome, brashly and optimistically modeled on the Roman Colosseum.

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Judge Roy Hofheinz contemplates his Astrodome Empire. (Photo Dan Hardy for “The Houston Post,” June 13, 1965. Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library, RGD0006-1086)

 

Holfheinz’s Huckster House

The Hofheinz aesthetic was jawdropping, theatrically imaginative, and not for the faint of heart.

The design DNA was introduced at the family home in Morgan’s Point along Galveston Bay, called Huckster House, which was acquired in 1950.

Huckster House in its Hofheinz heyday (Photo Murray Getz)

“The word ‘huckster’ is used in the radio business as somebody who went out and sold the advertising, and that’s how he got all his business,” says the Judge’s son, Fred Hofheinz (who, like his father, also served as Houston mayor, and was a one-time VP of the vast Hofheinz holdings). “He was a great radio and television advertising salesman. And Huckster House was filled with people selling.”

As the Judge’s son remarks, “My father had the world’s greatest curiosity. He was interested in everything, about everything. He didn’t sleep very much. He was truly a Renaissance man.”

Huckster’s House design aesthetic mirrored the Judge’s optimistic embrace of exuberant decor. It would be a blueprint for the Judge’s lavish personal quarters at the Dome, and ultimately, the Celestial Suite.

Huckster House, for which he paid $12,500, became Hofheinz’s personal play land. He and the family entertained on weekends and did business, boating, barbecuing, and closing deals. Victorian in style, circa 1894-1896, the imposing home was loaded with gingerbread and other trappings of its era: wraparound porch, turret, onion-shaped roof, and all manner of fretwork.

Some $100,000 was poured into it to create theme rooms and odes to Victoriana that the Judge’s Beaumont childhood had lacked, due to scarce funds. He made up for that with a creative  vengeance. Among Huckster House’s notable interiors were The Circus Room, adjoining The Hofheinz Opera House bathroom (seating for one); South Seas Lounge; The Caribbean Room; and the Gay Nineties Room — all motifs that would make their way into his first hotel.

Huckster House’s Circus Room foretold of the extravagant room themes to come, as well as the Judge’s lifelong obsession with the Big Top. (Photo Harold Israel, Gulf Photo)

A Google Maps search revealed that Huckster House, at 811 Bayridge Road, is stil standing (or was pre-Hurricane Harvey). The house was sold by the family in 1987, so it’s doubtful that the home’s Hofheinz-era flourishes have survived.

The Disneyland Connection

Among the jewels in the Judge’s portfolio was a collection of four hotels and motels. The flagship, however, was the Astroworld Hotel, where he and his new bride, Mary Frances, took up residence a few months after the couple’s whirlwind wedding on April 9, 1969, in Austin (a day before the Judge’s 57th birthday). For the Judge, who had been a widower, it was a modest affair with one witness, photographer Howard Israel, who also served as the official Dome photographer.

The newlyweds temporarily lodged at the Judge’s quarters in the Astrodome, but Hofheinz had another scheme up his colorful sleeves.

He spilled the news to Houston Post gossip columnist Marge Crumbaker in an exclusive interview. “I’m fixing us up a little suite over at the Astroworld Hotel,” Crumbaker’s column quotes the Judge. She then quips,

“It will just be a plain little spot, Hofheinz discloses, but with some fun things — like a waterfall in the bathtub, and that bathtub will be 17 feet long.”

Astroworld Hotel GM Jim Spring and wife, Marjorie, check out the Roman Bath during festivities for the Celestial Suite’s big reveal. (Photographer Blair Pittman for “Houston Chronicle,” Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library, RGD0013-69-12-245-018)

The man behind the Judge’s new homestead was West Coast designer Harper Goff, an Oscar-winning set designer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantastic Voyage) and art director (Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory) who had lent his expertise to Astroworld and, shortly after that, Hofheinz’s posh, private quarters in the Dome.

Harper Goff sketches his vision for “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory”

Goff was also the chief designer for the original Disneyland, working on such key attractions as Main Street USA and Jungle Cruise. Hofheinz and Goff first met over a commission for railroad cars for his soon-to-be-built amusement park, Astroworld, which opened June 1, 1968, across from the Dome. Fred Hofheinz surmises the pair connected through Walt Disney, Goff’s boss.

“Disney came to visit Houston and look at the Dome,” Fred Hofheinz says. “Dad was always interested in the new and unusual. I’m sure he asked for help for the Astroworld project.”

From the wild imagination of Harper Goff, the set design drawing for “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” Goff was perfectly matched to carry out the exuberant decor schemes for the Judge.

But Goff’s finest and most enduring Houston moment was the Celestial Suite commission. As reported in the definitive Hofheinz bio, Edgar W. Ray’s The Grand Huckster, Goff was assisted by Stuart Young, the Judge’s go-to man for crafting and creating highly carved furniture, as well as Sam Daidone, an ace at sleuthing antique furniture, curiosities, and  treasures from far and near.

Hofheinz gave free rein and an open checkbook to Goff to create interiors that were cinematic and unforgettable. Goff says in The Grand Huckster, “The next year [1969] was one of the most exciting and entertaining that I ever had. The Judge, Mary Frances, my wife, and I toured up and down Texas and Louisiana to buy antique furniture. We designed the penthouse and the different rooms to accommodate the furniture.”

The first and most theatrical treatment was lavished upon the Judge’s private quarters. “I gave him a kind of baronial, crusader-type suite with a great stone fireplace, huge carved mantel,” Goff recalls in the book. “Stuart Young made an eight-by-eight foot, four-poster bed, like a royal bed.”

Goff continues to record, room by room descriptions in Hofheinz’s bio, from the Minidome nightclub to The Adventurer Suite and The P.T. Barnum Suite. Goss equated the penthouse with being a map to the inner working of Hofheinz’s mind.

“The penthouse represented the way the Judge thought,” he notes. It was my good fortune to have many hours with him, planning and chewing the fat over ideas. The Judge gave me a free hand. Nobody second-guessed me. The final product was unparalleled.”

The House in the Sky

The Celestial Suite 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 1977 Guinness Book of World Records as the most expensive hotel suite in the world — thus generating even more publicity for the hotel and Astrodomain complex.

Chronicle society editor Betty Ewing penned a column from the fête titled “He’s Done It Again Folks — a Dazzling Production!” that appeared Sunday,December 21, 1969. She wrote, “The razzle dazzle rendezvous that would even cause P.T. Barnum to blink in wonderment is snuggled nine stories in the sky via glass elevator, and the Dome Stadium daddy has christened it ‘The Celestial Suite at the Penthouse Level.’”

Toasting the Celestial Suite and its creator, a stylish throng turned out for opening night. (Photographer Blair Pittman for “Houston Chronicle,” Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library, RGD0013-69-12-245-026)

Ewing’s column reports in glowing detail the interiors of the six-bedroom, two-level sky-pad that caused the assembled throng to marvel: the Olympic-sized, Roman-inspired sunken tub surrounded by AstroTurf, the Minidome double-decker nightclub that replicated the Astrodome experience down to TV-sized scoreboards, and especially the P.T. Barnum Suite. There was a carnival caravan bed with red wheels, a carousel pony supporting a red telephone, a jaunty bronze sculpture of Barnum’s big headliner Tom Thumb, and the tiger skin of a late circus-performing big cat.

The design scheme was a triumph. As Fred Hofheinz underscores, “The circus thing was pretty obvious at the time — Roy Hofheinz was the largest shareholder in Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.” (And it’s not surprising that deal had been sealed to great fanfare in 1967 at the Roman Colosseum, the Judge’s inspiration for the Astrodome.)

The Band Wagon Bedroom underscores the circus theme. (Photo Lisa Petrole)

Ewing’s column raves abut the design of the Celestial Suite, then details the ’60s swells who oohed and aahed over the splendors of the Suite in its first big reveal. All the press turned out to pounce on the story — competing gossip columnists Maxine Mesinger and Marge Crumbaker, as well as KPRC’s Tim Nolan, were joined by socials Allan and Shirley Becker,  Sidney and Marti Schlenker, and Clair and John Mullins. And, in from Palm Springs, the man of the night arrived: Harper Goff with wife, Flossie.

Astroworld’s chef Joseph Gunter Lowe served a buffet of grand proportions. Betty Ewing dubbed it a “Romantype feast… roast beef, chicken, ham, shrimp, crab claws, stuffed mushrooms, tomatoes and eggs, highly polished fruit displays, bushels full of almonds, pastries.” A photo taken by Chronicle photographer Blair Pittman documents the scene: a lavish spread in the Golden Bird Cage Dining Room, placed atop a highly carved dining table (whose top, Ewing shared, lifted off to reveal a turn-of-the-century pool table).

Astroworld Hotel chef Joseph Gunter Lowe prepared a Roman-inspired feast displayed in the Golden Bird Cage Dining Room. (Photographer Blair Pittman for “Houston Chronicle,” Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library, RGD0013-69-12-245-004)

For this grand occasion, the Judge and his new wife dressed up: He in a magisterial robe and wig along the line of a British barrister, she in a pale-blue Indian sari set off by a jangling headdress of ancient coins. Hotel manager Jim Spring and wife Marjorie, in a chic “Christmas green pantsuit,” clinked cocktails in the Roman bath. The long, Spanish-style, filigree-adorned hallway was thronged with celebrants, from a grande dame in a flowing gown set off by marabou boa to a pretty young thing in a short frock, Mary Janes, and a flipped-up bouffant.

The Judge and Mary Frances are preserved for the ages in Pittman’s black-and-white party portrait, poised on the tiger-skin rug in the Crusader Bedroom.

Mary Frances Hofheinz and Judge Roy Hofheinz celebrate the opening of the Celestial Suite, December 18, 1969. (Photographer Blair Pittman for “Houston Chronicle,” Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library, RGD0013-69-12-245-015)

The End of an Era

The decade after the Dome unveiled was not good to Hofheinz. He suffered a debilitating stroke in 1970 but would forge on for another 12 years, gamboling about in his wheelchair, waited on by Mary Frances, even traveling to Europe, and still smoking his beloved stogies and indulging in rich Cajun foods, topped off by ice cream sundaes. By 1975, the Judge lost much of his empire in a complicated reversal of fortune involving the lost value of his P.T. Barnum investment.

In 1973, a fire two floors below the Celestial Suite forced a harrowing early-morning hotel evacuation by the Hofheinzes. While the suite was undamaged, that incident put the kibosh on high-rise life for the Judge forever. He lived out his final decade in a colonial-style mansion in River Oaks, physically diminished but mentally sharp. He did survive to see a moving tribute to himself, held in 1979 at the Astrodome, the temple to baseball, sports, and entertainment he willed into existence.

Who Checked In

Astrodome headliners made for interesting tales of Celestial Suite guests: Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and reportedly Johnny Cash, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra (who briefly dated the Judge’s daughter, Dene), Jerry Lewis, and Mohammed Ali.

Hofheinz’s politico buddy President Lyndon Baines Johnson — pals since they met in 1928 at the Democratic National Convention in Houston — has also been cited as a Celestial Suite regular. During those times when the suite was occupied by high-paying guests, Mary Frances and the Judge traveled or returned to the Dome.

Other clues turn up to the history of the Celestial Suite, in old newspaper photography negatives, including the Minidome awaiting contestants in the national Pillsbury Bake Off of 1972. That same year, the Astroblast, a benefit for Theatre Under The Stars, was held at the Celestial Suite. In 1975, The Marble Library was the scene of a dignified gathering with Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and the leaders of Houston’s African-American community.

Vice President Nelson Rockefeller at an official function at the Celestial Suite in 1975. (Houston Metropolitan Research Center, Houston Public Library, RGD0006N-1975-1954-021)

After the Judge’s death in 1982, remarkably, the Celestial Suite lived on generating big-figure income into the 1990s, hosting parties, weddings, and shindigs, as varied as delegate stays during the Republic National Convention in 1992. By the mid-1990s, the price of a night’s stay had risen to $5,500 as cited in a November 4, 1996, Houston Chronicle article. The following decade, the Minidome inside the Suite became a jazz club, when the hotel underwent new management.

Remains of the Day

Today, the Celestial Suite, built 48 years ago, is remarkably intact, having been shuttered and cloistered from the rest of the hotel for at least a dozen years.

Seventies-era telephones with Astrodome stickers sit next to bulbous ’70s television sets and the final Southwestern Bell telephone books dated September 1996. The tufted red velvet bed coverings and pelmets in the Judge’s rooms are tattered and dusty; the heavy brocade at the windows hangs dejectedly.

But the massive carved master bed, said to have been fashioned after Scarlett O’Hara’s bed in Gone with the Wind, is there, as are the heavy antiques purchased by the Judge and Goff on their buying sprees. Adjoining is the serpentine 17-foot Roman Bath, with Colosseum-inspired columns, and swan faucets. Carved and painted doors with brass placards announce The Band Wagon Room, The P.T. Barnum Suite, and The Adventurer Suite, with separate Tarzan Room and Fu Man Chu Bedroom.

In the Tarzan Room, a twisting tree rises two floors, with steps to a bamboo tree house; there are palm-frond wallcoverings, leopard prints, African carvings, and, hanging from the ceiling, swinging ’70s rattan chairs and a drooping, yellow-striped canopy.

The tropical Tarzan Room in the Adventurer Suite. (Photo Lisa Petrole)

The Fu Man Chu Bedroom, with ersatz capiz-shell chandeliers and pagoda light fixtures, is joined to the coral Mandarin Bath with gold-painted, carved cabinet fronts and coral steps leading to an oversized coral bath.

The Lillian Russell Suite adjoins The Bouquet Bath; The Sadie Thompson Suite (Gloria Swanson as a young, beautiful prostitute on a Pacific Island “saved” by Lionel Barrymore) leads to The Sponge Bath. The Band Wagon Room has a massive carved peacock, red-and-yellow tufted bed with bright circus wheels, and red-striped circus top.

The most hauntingly  beautiful room is the Golden Bird Cage Dining Room, a darkly glittering octagon with foxed mirrors and bamboo trim. Books fill the Marble Library shelves — Widow’s Web, Charmed Circle, Wild Wing, The Peacock Sheds His Tale. Could these tiles be coincidence?

Astrodome Judgement Day

The fate of the Astrodome itself remains undecided — although, promisingly, an Astrodome Conservancy has been created led by preservationists Phoebe Tudor, Minnette Boesel, and Judy Nyquist, with Margaret Lawler as executive director. At the University of Houston, the Hofheinz Pavilion almost lost its name.

Huckster House, as the Judge devised it, is long gone, and his extraordinary Astrodome offices and pad were disassembled in 1988. The Judge’s vast storehouses of cars, carousels, and collections went on the block at Hart Galleries in a seven day auction in 1984.

On the penthouse’s second floor, ensconced within the Judge’s private quarters, the Victorian Room. (Photo Lisa Petrole)

All that tangibly remains of the Judge’s optimistic, flamboyant, and gilded lifestyle and vision is the Celestial Suite.

The latest of approximately eight hotel owners, the Crowne Plaza has been a careful steward of the penthouse floor. A half-century after the Celestial Suite was designed, we appreciate the rooms today more as talismanic art installations to the Judge. Given the hotel’s association with the Orange Show, which has held their gala in the hotel’s ballroom for the past six years, and the establishment of the Astrodome  Conservancy, one hopes that these entities can assist the Crowne Plaza in forging a foundation to preserve the Judge’s legacy.

One of Judge Roy Hofheinz’s admirers, fabled judge Leon Jaworski, wrote in The Grand Huckster: “He was a dreamer up to a certain point, but his weren’t idle dreams. They were dreams that had substance. Houston and Texas owe Roy Hofheinz much.”

Stay tuned for the sequel to this story: “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Hofheinz.”

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