Astrodome train car a rolling luxury box

For Sale: A luxury railroad car that used to circle AstroWorld, the amusement park next to the Astrodome. It’s in very good shape – having been garaged in Robert Harper’s South Houston warehouse for the past 41 years.

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“It’s a full size rail car, 44 feet long, 12 feet wide. It weighs 50-thousand pounds,” Harper explains. “I just don’t know what the heck to do with it.”

He’s hoping somebody does.

The car originally belonged Judge Roy Hofheinz, Houston’s legendary mayor who was integral in bringing the Astros to town and building the world’s first domed stadium. Hofheinz hired a Hollywood set designer to draw up plans for the custom-made railcar, which includes an office, a wet bar, a marble bathroom, stained glass windows -- even a pipe organ.

The story of how the train car got parked in Harper’s warehouse is told in the latest episode of Strange Inheritance with Jamie Colby. It airs on Monday, April 9 at 9:30 p.m. ET.

Hofheinz was elected mayor of Houston in 1952, promising to transform the oil boom town into a world-class metropolis. He was ousted from office after two terms and turned his focus to bringing Major League Baseball to Texas’s Gulf Coast.

Realizing Houston’s swampy summer weather could be a deal breaker, Hofheinz proposed the construction of an air-conditioned domed stadium. He got his team (originally the Colt .45s) in 1962. The Astrodome – named after the city’s NASA Space Center -- opened in 1965.

The railcar came in 1968, when Hofheinz spent $25 million to erect the AstroWorld amusement park next to the stadium.  Circling the park was an attraction called the 610-Limited Railroad. Hofheinz commissioned Harper Goff, who designed sets for such movies as Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, to design a private rail car that would carry him and his VIP guests around the one-mile loop.

In 1970 Hofheinz was forced to sell off parts of his empire.

“He made a lot of money but he also lost a lot of money,” says historian James Glassman. “He leveraged every project against each other. He had just become over-extended.”

Around that time, Robert Harper’s father was developing industrial buildings. Hofheinz’s representatives called looking for a place to store his treasured railroad car. The car, however, would not fit through the door of any of the existing Harper warehouses. So they came up with another solution.

“They brought the railroad car down to one of my father’s sites, and he built a building around it,” says Harper.

It hasn’t moved since.

Hofheinz died in 1982. His widow continued to pay the $240-a-month rent on the facility for another decade, until bankruptcy forced her to liquidate assets in a fire sale.

Harper estimates his father bought the AstroWorld railcar for about $10,000. When the senior Harper died in 2012, Robert inherited the car - but never took it out of the warehouse.

“Nobody has known about it until you,” he tells Colby in the program.

Can he get a buyer aboard? He’s hoping the national television exposure will be just the ticket.

“I’m in love with it, but I don’t want to leave the burden on my daughter to get rid of it,” Harper says.