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Buhl Planetarium telescope excluded from science center's expasion plans

| Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016, 11:15 p.m.
Jasmine Goldband | Trib Total Media
Original Zeiss II optical mechanical star projector from 1939 was on display at the Carnegie Science Center as recently as 2014.

The Carnegie Science Center is moving forward with a $34.5 million expansion project, but there is no room in the budget or the new wing for an antique telescope that once stood in Buhl Planetarium.

The 20-foot-long, 75-year-old telescope will remain at the science center's climate-controlled storage facility in Etna, co-director Ron Baillie said. Installing the massive piece of equipment, constructing a retractable dome to go over it and replacing decades-old motors to make the telescope functional again would be a “significant investment,” he said.

“It's usefulness as an astronomical tool is really not very significant today,” Baillie said. “Its only interest is that it's an old piece of Pittsburgh history.”

But that's why some who remember gazing at the stars with the help of the telescope want to see it restored.

“They're already spending $34 million on this expansion,” said Glenn Walsh, head of the Friends of the Zeiss, a group dedicated to preserving equipment from the planetarium and promoting science and astronomy education. “It's not going to cost that much more.”

The Buhl Foundation built the planetarium in 1939 and donated it to the city of Pittsburgh, even though the foundation continued to fund and operate it, according to the foundation's website. The planetarium merged with the Carnegie Science Center in 1991, and the historic North Side building was absorbed during a 2004 expansion of the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.

The Siderostat telescope, which was used in the planetarium's public astronomical observatory, and the Zeiss II projector, which was responsible for the sky shows in the planetarium's Theater of the Stars, were given to the Carnegie Science Center for safekeeping, Baillie said.

The former astronomical observatory coordinator for Buhl Planetarium, Walsh acknowledged the telescope would need a specialized observatory that the science center doesn't have, but he argued it would be worth the time and money to restore it.

“It's specially designed for public use, and right now it is the largest type of its kind in the world, if it were to be reassembled,” said Walsh, noting a similar telescope is sitting in pieces in storage in Florida.

Baillie said the science center was tasked by the city with protecting and preserving the telescope and the projector but was not required to use it.

The projector is on display in the science center but isn't in operation. The telescope isn't much to look at on its own, Baillie said.

“It was really just the city that said, ‘Hang onto it. At some point, if you can use it, use it,' ” he said.

But the center decided it can't be used in the three-story expansion that will include additional learning labs, a 350-seat conference space and a new exhibition hall. The city Planning Commission approved the plans this week. Baillie said construction is set to begin this month.

The project is expected to be completed in June 2018.

Elizabeth Behrman is a staff writer for the Tribune-Review. She can be reached at 412-320-7886 or Lbehrman@tribweb.com.

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