Battle lines set for preservation of Buhl projector
By Kris B. Mamula
What Glenn Walsh remembers most about his 10th birthday surprise was the giant ant-like contraption that slowly rose from the floor.
The "ant" was the projector that for decades showered constellations of light on the ceiling of Buhl Planetarium's Theater of the Stars. It was 1965 when Walsh, now 39 and a Mt. Lebanon resident, first visited the planetarium on the North Side.
Little could he then imagine he would lead a crusade to save the projector.
"I was captivated by it," Walsh said.
Buhl has been shuttered since 1991, replaced by The Carnegie Science Center several blocks away. A number of uses have been explored for the old building - theater, office building, museum, police station. None has panned out.
Now, the Carnegie wants to sell the projector. The proceeds of the sale, estimated at $500,000, would be spent to upgrade equipment at The Science Center's Henry Buhl Jr. Planetarium.
But Walsh, a former lecturer at the old planetarium, is nothing if not persistent. He has been trying to block the sale through a letter-writing campaign. And at his request, Pittsburgh City Council will hold a hearing today on the projector sale.
"After working in this historic structure for more than nine years, I am very disturbed that this facility, and its historic planetarium and observatory instruments, would no longer be used for their intended purposes," Walsh wrote to Ellsworth Brown, president of The Carnegie. "With proper marketing of the original Buhl building, this need not be a financial burden on The Carnegie."
The Navarro College Foundation in Dallas, Texas, wants to buy the projector, said Paul J. Oles, assistant director for the Omnimax Planetarium Observatory at science center. The projector would be installed in a planetarium the foundation is building.
But a delay could jeopardize the sale, Oles said.
"You need the technology of the 21st century to turn students on to astronomy today," Oles said. "There's a very real possibility we may lose that opportunity."
Buhl Planetarium featured the Zeiss Planetarium projector from the day it opened in October 1939. Walsh said it was the last such projector to be built by Zeiss Optical Works in Jena, Germany, before World War II.
But by the time the planetarium closed four years ago, Zeiss technology had long been replaced by high-speed computers. In a video age, the Zeiss projector is a dinosaur.
"We have the responsibility to challenge today's more visually sophisticated youngsters," Oles said, something not possible with a World War II-era device.
While Walsh battles to save the projector, North Side community leaders look for ways to reuse the old planetarium. The building has many assets.
The exterior is Indiana limestone, and statues relating to astronomy and other sciences adorn the outside. Many interior walls are Florentine marble, and the planetarium theater seats 425. Still, the search for a new tenant continues.
"We would love to see that building occupied," said Fannie Dunn, executive director of the North Side Chamber of Commerce. "It's a gorgeous building."
James M. Kubus photo
Other News Articles Regarding 1995 Pittsburgh City Council Public Hearing
On Proposed Sale of Historic Buhl Planetarium Equipment and Artifacts.