The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science was created by a bequest of the estate of Henry Buhl, Jr. (d. 1928), prominent Pittsburgh retailer and philanthropist. The Buhl Foundation was created, at the request of Henry's wife, to provide grants for research in social and natural sciences, education, public health, housing, and city planning. The origin of the foundation was a condition of Henry Buhl's last will and testament. The Buhl Foundation forged the plan for the Planetarium and Institute as a memorial to Mr. Buhl and a fitting tribute to his public-minded values. The Foundation retained Pittsburgh architects Ingham & Boyd in 1935 to design a monumental structure to house the innovative Zeiss II Planetarium Projector, provide display space for a multitude of science and astronomy-related exhibits, and to create research facilities for scientific study, astronomical observation and experimentation.
The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science would be constructed upon the site of the former Allegheny City Hall, owned then as now by the City. Pittsburgh City government viewed the construction of the Buhl as the centerpiece of the much-desired renaissance of the declining North Side and enthusiastically supported the concept of the Buhl as the core of the city's "second cultural and civic center." The City leased the land to the Buhl Foundation in 1937 for said purpose, and the Buhl Foundation financed the $ 1.10 million project. The construction bid was awarded to the general contractors, W.F. Trimble and Sons. The lease was assigned to the Board of Directors of the Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science on completion and acceptance on the construction project.
The relatives of Henry Buhl Jr. were joined by the public to witness Mayor Cornelius D. Scully and W. S. Linderman (President of the Buhl Planetarium Board) dig into the earth and tossed the first shovels of dirt at the groundbreaking ceremony held April 14, 1938. The ceremony was broadcast live by KDKA and was covered by Dave Garroway. Other notables at the groundbreaking include City Councilmen G.E. Evans, T.J. Gallagher, F.W. Wier and Robert Garland. William F. Trimble Jr. represented the contracting firm. William Rodgers of McCrady-Rodgers Company and A.W. Robertson of the Buhl Foundation Board of Managers were also present.
Relatives of Henry Buhl, Jr., toured the building privately on the afternoon of the dedication. A portrait, of Henry Buhl Jr. was commissioned by the Buhl Foundation and presented to the Buhl Family during their private tour of the Planetarium. The building was dedicated to the public and conveyed to the City of Pittsburgh on Tuesday evening, October 24, 1939.
The Dedication Ceremony was held in the "Theater of the Stars". The singing of the Star Spangled Banner was lead by Miss Mabel King and The Right Reverend Alexander Mann, D.D, delivered the Dedication prayer. Mr. William S. Linderman, President of the Board of Managers of the Buhl Foundation gave the opening statement and Mr. Charles F. Lewis, Director of The Buhl Foundation made the Presentation of the facility. Mayor Cornelius D. Scully accepted the Buhl Planetarium on behalf of the City of Pittsburgh.
Mr. James Stokley, Director of The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science then demonstrated the planetarium with a sky show entitled, "Stars over Pittsburgh". The sky, as it would appear on the evening of the dedication, was recreated for the audience in the planetarium. Music for the dedication and the planetarium sky show was provided by the planetarium organ and played by Mr. Joseph R. DeOtto. After the sky show, the audience toured the building and explored the interactive exhibits and the astronomy paintings by D. Owen Stevens.
The building is adorned with sculptures (The Heavens, The Earth, Day, Night, Modern Science, and Primitive Science) created by the well-known artist Sidney Waugh. The names of famous Astronomers and Scientists adorn the stonework at the base of the large exterior metal planetarium dome and the Foucault pendulum pit is of Florentine marble. The building was affectionately known as The Buhl Planetarium or The Buhl.
Over 200,000 people visited The Buhl in the first year of its opening. Admission to the building exhibits was free and the sky show was 25 cents. The money was used to offset the maintenance costs of the building. The 1967 admission fee for the facility was 35 cents for children and 85 cents for adults. The Buhl was the first building in Pittsburgh with air conditioning.
The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science was the fifth major planetarium in the United States and the last one built before World War II. The Buhl was the only facility of the five to combine a planetarium and a science museum in one building. (The other planetaria were stand-alone planetariums or additions to natural history museums.)
The designers and engineers incorporated a number of innovations that created a facility that is truly unique to the world. Buhl was the first and only planetarium in the world to mount a 6000-pound star-projector (Zeiss Model II) on an elevator. This one of a kind elevator was designed and constructed by the Westinghouse Corporation here in Pittsburgh. This innovation has never been recreated. This innovation afforded the use of the planetarium as a theater in the round. Buhl was the first and only facility of its kind to incorporate a dedicated stage as part of the planetarium theater design as well.
Buhl was the first planetarium in America to consider the hearing impaired visitors and installed a special sound system to meet their needs. The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science is the last facility, in America, of the five great planetaria to retain its original architectural splendor and the original planetarium projector.
Over 100 thousand adults and children have been educated at Buhl's classes, lectures, and workshops. (This count does not include the number of people informally educated while visiting Buhl.) Topics have included the construction of telescopes, rocketry, robotics, chemistry, astronomy, philosophy, physics, biology, mathematics, engineering, and space exploration.
The existence of Buhl, its programs, and outreach activities, are credited with providing the inspiration and impetus for many young Pittsburghers to enter careers in the sciences, including NASA Astronaut Jay Apt and Jim Irwin, a Beechview native and Apollo Astronaut who walked on the moon. Many other prominent scientists and engineers in Pittsburgh businesses and universities are "graduates" of the Buhl's programs. Buhl graduates have gone on to pursue careers in technology, medicine, law and government, including Former State Senator Michael Schaefer. The accomplishments of these individuals have contributed significantly to the rise of Pittsburgh as a center for high technology and higher education in scientific disciplines. (To quote Dr. Apt: "Buhl classes are probably the best preparation for a technical career I can imagine.")
The Buhl Planetarium's Theater of the Stars was used to train World War II Armed Forces military pilots in the art of celestial navigation. The 65-foot diameter sky show dome distinguishes Buhl as one of the largest classic planetarium theaters in existence. (This dome is larger than the one that graces the Taj Mahal.) Buhl Planetarium now contains the world's oldest operating original Zeiss Model II Star Projector and the world's largest, and only siderostat telescope installed for public use.
The siderostat telescope permitted the public to view the night sky while remaining warm and dry, and the tracking mirror took the worry out of moving the telescope to view celestial objects. Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, and the moon were popular nighttime objects, and sunspot images were safely projected during the day. (Although the telescope was mentioned at the dedication, it was not purchased and installed until 1941.) The purchase price of the telescope was $ 30,000 and the dedication was held on the evening of November 19, 1941. The object viewed that Wednesday evening was the planet Saturn.
The telescope was also utilized for a lunar mapping project headed by Francis Graham, an associate professor of physics at Kent State and the principal founder of the Tripoli Rocketry Association. (Mr. Graham's name can be seen at the Wall of Fame within the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.)
From 1929-1935, twenty-five Zeiss Model II projectors were fabricated in Jena, Germany. The Zeiss Model II was the first projector capable of displaying the northern or southern sky, on any given time of the day, 26,000 years into the past or the future. The Zeiss at Buhl Planetarium is number 25, and was the last projector built before W.W. II. The Zeiss at Buhl Planetarium was purchased for $135,000.
On August 31, 1991, the Buhl's new role was that of a science center. During this period the role of the facility was being redefined. The Planetarium Theater and the telescope were no longer open to the public and public lectures and science demonstrations were discontinued as well. The building was utilized for staff offices and an exhibits design center. The workshop and staff would later be moved to the newly opened facility. A limited number of Saturday Science classes were the only public events scheduled at the facility. The city closed the building and locked the doors to the public in February of 1994. Over 6,000,000 people have visited Buhl during its operation.
Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science currently contains the planet's largest siderostat telescope for public use and the world's oldest planetarium projector mounted on the only custom elevator of its kind, constructed and set in the last untouched public planetarium in America. The facility has purportedly been utilized since that time only for storage space.
No attempt was made to catalog or preserve the historical contents of the building after its closing. Artifacts discarded and discovered in the dumpster include scientific equipment, scrapbooks, and the original architect's model of the building. The final resting-place of many of the other artifacts and the first edition books authored by renowned scientists and lecturers housed in Buhl's Library is, at this time unknown.
Books from Buhl's Library have turned up at Thrift Shops in the area. A book from Buhl's collection will be marked with a label on the inside of the front cover or the Copyright page will be embossed with a Buhl seal. Some of the books will contain the seal and the label.
Please contact SAVE THE BUHL.org if any books or artifacts are located. We will catalog the articles by title, copyright date, publisher or manufacture, and location of discovery. Please forward an accurate description of the article and a color photograph of the article to SAVE THE BUHL.org Box 431 Pgh, PA 15230 USA. (Do not send the actual article!) We will incorporate this information into the BUHL PLANETARIUM and INSTITUTE of POPULAR SCIENCE website SAVE THE BUHL.org.
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