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For years, the Zeiss put stars on ceiling and minds in space

Thursday, April 04, 2002

By Michael A. Fuoco, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

For 52 years, Buhl Planetarium's Zeiss II star projector was the other-worldly contraption that sometimes magically turned field trips into life-altering careers.

 
    More on this story

Pittsburgh City Council sees Buhl as it was

 
 

One of its childhood fans -- Jay Apt -- has himself traveled into space as an astronaut, and another, Stephen Frick, is scheduled to make his first space voyage today. Another Zeiss fan, Thomas Bopp, discovered a comet that was co-named for him -- Hale-Bopp.

But even if they didn't grow up to be astronauts or discover a comet, thousands of children were moved by the planetarium experience.

But it has been more than 10 years since the Zeiss projector has taken any young minds on a voyage through the heavens. The old equipment -- including the Zeiss II and a Siderostat telescope -- has gathered dust since the building was closed in 1991.

And yesterday, City Council preliminarily agreed to lease the vintage 1939 Allegheny Center planetarium to the Pittsburgh Children's Museum for $1 annually for nearly 30 years so the museum can undertake an $18.5 million expansion. The projector and telescope are expected to find a new home at the Carnegie Science Center, but for display purposes only.

Council's action likely will bring an end to a lengthy, emotional debate over the fate of the Zeiss II, an obsolete piece of equipment in a defunct science center, that preservationists and others didn't want to see go.

The intense loyalty for the Zeiss II stemmed not just from the stars it projected on the domed ceiling but from the imaginations it illuminated in generations of Pittsburgh children.

The lights would go out. A rumble. Up, up, up from a basement pit the large Zeiss star projector would rise on a platform into the room. The giggling would stop.

What the heck is that?

A mutant ant? A spacecraft? Two diving bells connected by gizmos?

Suddenly, the strange contraption would transport the children to another world. There, on the domed ceiling, brilliant stars, the rings of Saturn, indeed all of the heavens would appear, so close you could almost reach out and touch them.

At the Buhl, the Foucault pendulum in the lobby, demonstrating the Earth's rotation, was neat. So, too, were the static electricity ball that would make your hair stand on end and the scale that would tell you how much you'd weigh on Mars.

But for sheer take-your-breath-away excitement, there was nothing quite like being in the "Theater of the Stars" planetarium and being surrounded by the cosmos as projected by the Zeiss II.

That was then. Time has passed by the 63-year-old Zeiss, which cost $134,000 when it was installed in 1939.

Star projectors, such as the one used in the Carnegie Science Center, are now digital and not mechanical like the Zeiss II. But like many things -- particularly cool and weird things -- connected with childhood, there always will be a place in the hearts of many Pittsburghers for it.

Eric Fischer, 51, of Hampton fondly recalls "the big ant rumbling out of the floor, the stars appearing, the space music playing, the very good acoustics."

"If you were a typical Pittsburgh kid you didn't see the stars that much with the glow of steel mills against the sky. To go into a place and see a jet black sky -- for a kid who never got to go to the country, it was a stunning experience," said Fischer, a proposal writer for Union Switch & Signal and a former officer of the Amateur Astronomy Association of Pittsburgh.

Rick Sebak, himself something of a Pittsburgh institution for his homey documentaries of Pittsburgh past and present for WQED, recalled that in 1980, during his first cross-country trip for a documentary, he was in an Arizona desert at night, a brilliant star-filled moment he can only describe "like being in Buhl Planetarium."

While working on the documentary "North Side Story," which premiered Dec. 3, 1997, Sebak interviewed Bopp, a Youngstown native who moved to Phoenix in 1980, joined an astronomy club and, while using another club member's' telescope, discovered the comet that came to be named Hale-Bopp.

Bopp and Sebak went inside the closed Buhl planetarium to reminisce.

"I've always loved just about everything in the sky," Bopp told Sebak. "As a child my mom and dad brought the children down here to Buhl Planetarium and it's a great inspiration to me to watch a sky program, to see the projected images on the dome, and to marvel at 'How did they do that?' you know. 'How'd they do that?' ."

For decades, the Buhl Planetarium was part of daily life for Bill Rodgers, a 62-year-old retired chemistry teacher from Bellevue.

He had just begun his freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh as a pre-law student when he was hired by the planetarium in 1957. He continued guiding tours there until 1962 when he entered the military.

Four years later, he rejoined the planetarium and returned to Pitt to complete an education degree with majors in earth science and chemistry. His Buhl experiences played a role in his decision to pursue a career in science.

"It may have influenced me to go into science teaching," Rodgers said.

He found that he enjoyed working with children. One of his young students was Apt, who would become an astronaut and, for a time, direct the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

When he got older, Jay Apt took two streetcars to get to classes at the Buhl, where he built a telescope and started a model rocket club.

Rodgers, too, frequented the planetarium as a youngster and remembers hearing lecturer Arthur Draper, whom he idolized.

"He was really great," Rodgers said. "He had this really deep voice. When I started giving the children's sky shows, I tried to emulate him."

When he first heard about the uncertain future of the Zeiss star projector, Rodgers felt a twinge of regret.

"I have a sentimental attachment to it," he said.

Timm Barczy of Swissvale was a teacher at the planetarium and one of those lobbying City Council to preserve its artifacts. Even seeing the building from the outside intrigued him as a child, he said, knowing it housed scientific mysteries inside.

"It was pure magic," said Barczy, 43. "You never knew what to expect."

City Councilman William Peduto oversees the council committee responsible for Buhl. His main memory of the planetarium was seeing a laser rock show as a teen-ager.

"I was never a Pink Floyd fan," he said, "but my friends were like 'Dude, lasers!'. "


Staff writers Anita Srikameswaran and Timothy McNulty contributed to this report.

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