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Children's museum plan protested

Group fears loss of star projector in old planetarium

Wednesday, September 05, 2001

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Correction/Clarification: (Published Sept. 7, 2001) > In Wednesday's story about a group seeking to force the Pittsburgh Children's Museum to restore a Zeiss II projector and telescope once used by the Buhl Planetarium, we botched the last name of Norm Downey, a former Buhl employee.

The Pittsburgh Children's Museum is asking the Allegheny Regional Asset District for $4 million to help fund the museum's expansion into the vacant Buhl Planetarium in Allegheny Center on the North Side.

But a group of protesters, led by former planetarium employee Glenn Walsh of Mt. Lebanon, is opposed to the public funding unless the Children's Museum restores and reuses two historic pieces of equipment from the old Buhl.

One is a Zeiss II projector that for years was used to display the stars and planets on the domed ceiling of the "Theater of the Stars." The other is a 10-inch refractor telescope once used to study the sun.

Museum officials said the projector and telescope don't fit into their plans for classrooms and exhibit space at the renovated Buhl, which they hope to have ready by spring 2003.

"The Zeiss isn't part of our mission," said project manager Chris Siefert. The former Theater of the Stars, where the projector is stored in a space below the floor, would be used for children to do "hands-on" woodworking and mechanical projects. Siefert said he's hoping the Carnegie Science Center might find a place for the projector and telescope.

About a dozen protesters attended an asset district budget hearing last week. They were led by Walsh, who worked at the former Buhl Planetarium from 1982 to 1992, when it closed because the new Carnegie Science Center had opened.

The RAD board has opened discussion of its budget for 2002. As part of $97 million in requests by more than 100 arts, cultural and recreation groups, the children's museum is seeking $4 million for its expansion project.

Walsh said the former Zeiss projector was in active service for more than 50 years to show the stars to hundreds of school students in the Pittsburgh area. The old Buhl building opened in 1939 but has sat largely vacant since late 1991.

Walsh called the Zeiss "the oldest operable major planetarium projector in the world," even though it's been stored below the floor of the old planetarium for the past several years. Walsh also said the 10-inch refractor telescope is the second largest of its type in the world and, like the Zeiss, is still useable.

He said the proposed expansion of the museum -- through a connecting structure to the former planetarium next door -- "would include the dismantling of [the] two historic scientific instruments."

Siefert denied that claim. He said the Zeiss projector could remain stored under the floor until a new use is found for it, or could be transferred to the science center as an exhibit.

"We don't want it to leave Pittsburgh," he said. The old Buhl building and all the equipment it contains are actually owned by the city, so the Department of General Services will be involved in the ultimate disposition.

"We aren't going to dismantle any equipment which belongs to the city," he said.

Seddon Bennington, science center director, said he recognizes both the "historic significance and emotional appeal" of the old Zeiss projector. He would like it to become an "artifact" included in the center's upcoming $90 million expansion, but it wouldn't be an active, working projector.

"It's really been superseded by [the equipment] we have now," he said. "But we want to ensure it's taken care of. We want to present it for the public. We have been working with the children's museum to make sure it doesn't become lost or dismantled."

Walsh and his supporters, however, want a new, active use to be given to the Zeiss at the expanded children's museum.

Norm Downey of McCandless, another former Buhl employee, told the RAD board that the Zeiss projector is "an important piece of Pittsburgh and it needs to be preserved."

Gayle Thrasher of Moon told the board that she recalled going, as a child, to Buhl Planetarium. "I remember being filled with awe in going into the [projector] room and feeling like I was in the middle of the universe," she said.

Siefert said part of the mission of the proposed $10 million to $12 million expansion of the children's museum is to carry out the original vision of the former Buhl Planetarium -- "to provide a community-based educational venue."

The renovated Buhl building will include a cafe, additional exhibits for children, such as the Mr. Rogers Neighborhood and other "traveling" exhibits, a small theater for puppet shows and storytelling, as well as office space for organizations that work with children.

He said the current annual attendance of 100,000 could be doubled by expanding.

Early next month, the RAD board will release its preliminary budget for 2002. It is expected to be slightly higher than the $75.6 million budget for 2001, but likely lower than the $97 million that's been requested.

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