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Pittsburgh City Council sees Buhl as it was

Members give preliminary approval to Children's Museum expansion

Thursday, April 04, 2002

By Timothy McNulty, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

City Council yesterday changed directions -- again -- on leasing the old Buhl Planetarium to the Pittsburgh Children's Museum for an expansion project.

On Tuesday, council was poised to give final approval to leasing the vacant Allegheny Center planetarium to make way for an $18.5 million museum expansion. But council members delayed the vote, saying they wanted to tour the site and inspect the planetarium's city-owned equipment.

Council members changed course again at their meeting yesterday, and gave the lease preliminary approval, just as they did a week ago, before even taking the tour they had requested. The vote was 7-2, with Jim Ferlo and Sala Udin opposed.

Should council give final approval to the lease next week -- for $1 annually for nearly 30 years -- the children's museum can go ahead in June with the expansion plans, which include a translucent addition between the vacant Buhl, built in 1939, and the museum's current home, the former Allegheny Post Office.

The museum first announced the construction plans in September 2000 and hopes to be finished by June 2003. The planetarium has been closed since 1991. The museum's board of directors has scheduled a news conference to celebrate the expansion plans this afternoon.

Children's museum Director Jane Werner has spent months before City Council and other city and county agencies discussing the project. She called its approval yesterday "a win for the children of Pittsburgh, a win for council, a win for everyone in Western Pennsylvania -- moms, grandparents, fathers, children, everyone who comes [to the museum]."

Critics have spent the same time decrying the project, saying it should include preservation of the building's Zeiss II star projector, in a large domed room in the middle of the building, and a Siderostat telescope in a tiny room on the building's roof.

They said the equipment has unique historic value and would be useless if transferred to the Carnegie Science Center for display, as planned by the museum.

When council members toured the facility yesterday afternoon, they saw a place frozen in time. In a lobby outside the domed planetarium room, a large wall clock was stopped permanently at 5:35. Inside, the old Zeiss loomed like a mechanical black spider in the middle of the room, leaking oil.

Council members inspected the projector, which sat atop a rickety platform, and the giant elevator apparatus below that was used to carry it to the building's basement. The elevator is likely too large to remove, Werner said, though the museum could use it for storage space.

They also climbed a series of leaky steps to see the Siderostat, which looks like a gray torpedo beached in a small room on the building's roof. Near the telescope's eyepiece, which still worked, a calendar stood at April 1992.

At the council session, Werner said the equipment was not appropriate for the hands-on style of play at the children's museum and was better suited for the science center, where workers are trained to care for scientific equipment.

Ferlo and Udin told her they both favored the expansion plan but said council has a responsibility to care for the city-owned equipment. They wanted to delay voting on the lease to inspect the artifacts, discuss them further, and perhaps require the children's museum to keep them.

But delaying the lease, even for another week, would send a "mixed message" to museum backers pushing the expansion, North Side Councilwoman Barbara Burns said. Council President Gene Ricciardi agreed, saying he would "embarrass myself" if he agreed to delay the lease approval again.

Debate was bitter. No council member would agree to let Ferlo propose requiring the equipment to stay. Once, when Udin asked a longtime planetarium preservationist, Glenn Walsh, to speak to council, Ricciardi invoked a rarely used council rule that allows any member to block such comments.

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