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Museum to bridge 2 histories

Addition to illuminate Children's Museum

Thursday, March 14, 2002

By Patricia Lowry and Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

The city Historic Review Commission yesterday approved the Pittsburgh Children's Museum plans to join two historic structures with a third contemporary one.

But the approval only came after a lengthy discussion over the preservation of a biblical passage inscribed on a wall.

The museum wants to construct an $18.5 million project that would link its current home -- the neoclassical former Allegheny Post Office, built in the 1890s -- with the former Buhl Planetarium, an art moderne building of 1939.

Jane Werner, executive director of the Children's Museum, said she hopes construction will start in June and be finished by June 2003.

Between and behind the two older structures would rise an illuminated, translucent addition that resembles a paper lantern and is symbolic of a child's night light.

Koning Eizenberg Architecture of Santa Monica, Calif., won the competition in December 2000 to design the addition. Their scheme creates a new front door and entrance hall for the museum along a reopened East Ohio Street.

The biblical quote is from the 19th Psalm and is inscribed on the exterior of the east wall of the now-empty Buhl Planetarium. It is a favorite of astronomers: "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth His handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge."

The museum wants to replace that part of the wall with a new large window, which would create a direct view from the existing museum through the planetarium building, framing the clock tower of the Allegheny Regional Branch of Carnegie Library.

But some critics at yesterday's meeting objected to the new east window.

"This does unacceptable violence to the exterior of the building," said Barry Hannegan, representing Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation. "We very much deplore the obliteration of the inscription."

Hannegan also objected to the museum's desire to convert half of the existing sculpture garden into a parking lot. The foundation donated the Old Post Office building, its former headquarters, to the museum after it moved to Station Square in the early 1980s.

Several commission members favored the window, but somehow wanted the quote to be preserved.

"It's a part of the history of the building," said commission member Howard Graves.

Werner asked if the commission would be acting on behalf of "all children" if it insisted on preserving the biblical quote or just on behalf of children raised in the Judeo-Christian traditions. She also wondered whether preserving a religious quote would affect the museum's ability to secure state funds for the expansion project.

The museum, which has raised $13 million for the project, is seeking additional funds from the state. Also, the museum plans to begin the public phase of its capital campaign April 4. In addition to the $18.5 million for the expansion, the museum needs an additional $6.5 million for an endowment, for a total fund-raising effort of $25 million, Werner said.

The review commission voted 5-0 to approve the large east window, suggesting the Children's Museum explore the possibility of etching the quote in its glass and create an exterior frame for it in keeping with the building's design.

Only commission Chairman John DeSantis raised the larger issue of whether it's appropriate to blend the two historic structures with a third one in a newer style.

"I'm really torn on this project," he said. "I don't believe this structure is in the right place. It would look better on a piece of open land by the river. But I understand the Children's Museum would like to have a 'statement' building as well."

In the end, however, he supported it.

The old Buhl Planetarium, still owned by the city, opened in 1939 but has been empty since 1991.

But several critics who addressed the commission were not ready to sacrifice the planetarium's famous Zeiss projector or its Siderostat telescope, both of which would be removed if the expansion plan moves forward.

"If you take the projector out, you can only use it in a building with an identical dome," said John Weinhold of Beechview, a former Buhl volunteer. "There are volunteers available to operate and maintain them on a limited basis. Why not use the existing scientific equipment to broaden children's experience?"

The projector and telescope "are not rusty relics," said University of Pittsburgh professor Barry Mitnick. "They work. To blindly jettison these things borders on -- we could use the astronomical term -- lunacy."

Werner said the current Carnegie Science Center might become the new home of the projector and telescope, but as artifacts on display, not as working equipment.

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