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Mt. Lebanon High School to sell its planetarium equipment

Matthew Santoni
| Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015, 9:00 p.m.
Mt. Lebanon High School's 42-year-old planetarium is to be demolished as part of a $109 million renovation of the building. Currently used by only a couple of astronomy classes, the planetarium's Spitz A4 projector was listed for sale at $1,000 on the district's list of used equipment.
Mt. Lebanon High School's 42-year-old planetarium is to be demolished as part of a $109 million renovation of the building. Currently used by only a couple of astronomy classes, the planetarium's Spitz A4 projector was listed for sale at $1,000 on the district's list of used equipment.

The stars won't come out again in Mt. Lebanon High School as the district plans to disassemble and sell its 42-year-old planetarium equipment.

The planetarium is in the high school's “C” building, which is scheduled to be demolished as part of the school's $109 million renovation and expansion.

The project included a science wing, but the district chose not to relocate or replace the planetarium in its plans because computer software can provide the same astronomy lessons in less space, Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Education Ron Davis said.

Because the projector is in working order, the district sought to sell it.

“When you look at it, it's certainly worn, but it's functional,” Davis said.

Used by a couple of astronomy classes, the Spitz A4 projector was listed for sale at $1,000 on the district's list of used equipment. A potential buyer has expressed interest, provided the district can safely get the equipment out of its dome in a state that's still usable.

Contractors will make a plan and try to move the projector in the next month or two, Davis said, though he had no idea what the potential buyer planned to do with it. He declined to identify the buyer beyond saying that it was not another school district.

The district included the planetarium when the C wing was added to the high school in 1972, spokeswoman Cissy Bowman said.

For a time during the U.S.-USSR space race and the Cold War, Pennsylvania required new and renovated high schools to add planetariums with the help of some federal funding, but Bowman did not think Mt. Lebanon's facility resulted from that decree.

Mt. Lebanon's elementary schools used to hold field trips to the high school planetarium. But those ended this school year as the new science wing opened and classes started moving in.

As an optical-mechanical projector using lights, lenses and motors to simulate starlight, Mt. Lebanon's Spitz A4 is related more closely to the giant antique Zeiss projector on display in the Carnegie Science Center's lobby than it is to the high-definition, dual-digital projector system used in the science center's Buhl Planetarium, said Dan Malerbo, program development coordinator at Buhl.

The Zeiss Mark II projector had stood since 1939 in the original Buhl Planetarium in Allegheny Center, which is part of the Children's Museum. Malerbo, who used to operate the Zeiss, said workers had to attach lights and projectors to get things like close-up images of planets, galaxies or lines showing the constellations, and those had to be moved by hand to line up with the projected stars.

The Spitz A4, manufactured by Chadd's Ford-based Spitz Inc., was a fairly common model in schools during the 1970s, said Frank Mancuso, planetarium producer at the science center.

“As much as the opto-mechanical had wonderful star fields, in terms of realism, digital projectors have so much more capability,” Mancuso said.

About 10 Pittsburgh-area school districts have or had planetariums listed on the International Planetarium Society's directory, said IPS publications director Dale Smith, including Gateway and North Hills. Keystone Oaks and Upper St. Clair school districts once had planetariums, but theirs are no longer in use or were removed in renovation projects.

Even aging school planetariums can be useful teaching tools, Smith said. A projector and dome can provide a more realistic simulation of the sky and stars than a computer screen, while small, classroom-sized planetariums can provide a better learning environment than field trips to large multimedia domes such as Buhl, he said.

“The heart and soul of a planetarium is the sky,” Smith said. “Without the sky, it's not too much different than going to the movies or watching TV at home.”

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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