Application for the Nomination as a
The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science
Appendix C: Building Significance
1. Its location as a site of a significant historic or prehistoric event or activity;
The site is significant for two reasons:
1) Just prior to construction of The Buhl Planetarium and
Institute of Popular Science, this site was occupied by a three-floor City Hall
building, for the operation of the governmental affairs of the independent City
of Allegheny, then, the second largest city in Allegheny County (and, possibly,
the third largest city in the State). This City Hall, which had been
constructed in the 1860s, lasted well past the 1907 merger of the cities of
2) From 1939 until 1991, this was the site of
identification with a person or persons who significantly contributed to the
1) The Buhl Foundation agreed, in 1935, to build a planetarium
and institute of popular science as a lasting memorial to Henry Buhl, Jr. Mr. Buhl,
with his partner Russell H. Boggs, established the Boggs and Buhl Department
Store in 1869. Due to high quality merchandise and excellent customer service,
Boggs and Buhl quickly became one of the six most prominent department stores
2) Leo J. Scanlon, an active Pittsburgh-area amateur astronomer, developed the world’s first all-aluminum dome for his private astronomical observatory, next to his home on the North Side. Prior to this observatory’s dedication, on 1930 November 23, most people (including officials from ALCOA!) believed that aluminum was not a strong enough material for use in construction of a dome. Not only did Mr. Scanlon prove that aluminum was strong enough for a dome, a photograph was taken of him sitting on top of the dome!
Constructing an all-aluminum dome got the attention of several major national magazines, including Scientific American, Science & Invention, Popular Astronomy, and The Sky (predecessor of Sky and Telescope magazine; The Sky was co-published by Buhl Planetarium and New York’s Hayden Planetarium
Appendix C: Building Significance 2004 December Page 2 of 7
for a short time beginning in 1939). Mr. Scanlon’s aluminum dome became the prototype for aluminum domes on many future astronomical observatories.
co-founder of the Amateur Astronomers’ Association of Pittsburgh on 1929 June
9, was instrumental
in lobbying local foundations and the City government to have a planetarium
A history of the life of Leo J. Scanlon, who passed-away in 1999, can be found at URL:
exemplification of an architectur
In his book, Landmark Architecture: Pittsburgh and Allegheny County, Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation architectural historian Walter C. Kidney called Buhl Planetarium “a work in the compromise Classicism of the time that attempted to combine tradition and modernity.” Later, in the “Modernism” chapter, Mr. Kidney describes the Buhl Planetarium building as one of the “Major Eclectic buildings (that) continued to rise in the Depression” including “the Gulf Building, the Mellon Institute, the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, the Cathedral of Learning, the Heinz Chapel, the Buhl Planetarium, and the Florentine institutions of the Medical Center that were replacing the old villas on the Oakland hillside.” Mr. Kidney goes on to say that “Eclecticism seemed to have exhausted itself with these last great efforts, and when the Pittsburgh Renaissance built, it built in ways that had to be considered Modern.” Completed just before the onset of the Second World War, the Buhl Planetarium was one of the very last of these Eclectic buildings referred to by Mr. Kidney.
When opened to the public, the entire
building was air-conditioned, except for the Astronomical Observatory on the
third floor (however, the Observatory’s
Observing Room was heated!). Hence, The Buhl Planetarium and
Appendix C: Building Significance 2004 December Page 3 of 7
From the institution’s inception, the building included a state-of-the-art “talking exhibit” system. Several exhibits, throughout the building included a button that could be pushed by a visitor. This would activate a recording, from a record on a turntable in a special audio room (located across the hallway from the Planetarium Theater’s audio room). The last remnant of this talking exhibit system, an audio speaker, can still be seen today in the Foucault Pendulum Pit.
of The Buhl Planetarium and
identification as the work of an architect, designer, engineer, or builder
One of the City of
Construction of Buhl Planetarium’s exterior dome began on 1938 October 11. The dome was erected by the R. Guastavino Company. The R. Guastavino Company’s Construction Superintendent, for the erection of Buhl Planetarium’s exterior dome, was Frank Tisdale Bretherton.
exemplification of important planning and urban design techniques distinguished
by innovation, rarity, uniqueness, or over
Foundation spared no expense in the construction of The Buhl Planetarium
Appendix C: Building Significance 2004 December Page 4 of 7
of The Buhl Planetarium and
To maximize space for museum exhibits, better control the lighting inside the building, and assist in the heating and cooling (Buhl Planetarium was the first publicly-owned building in the City—and possibly the State—to be constructed with air-conditioning) of the building, The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science was purposely constructed with the exhibit galleries having no windows (and, no windows at all on the first floor level).
Buhl's Zeiss II Planetarium Projector was the
first planetarium projector in the world
to be placed on an elevator !!!
Buhl Planetarium’s Theater of the Stars was the first planetarium theater (and, perhaps, the first theater!) to install a special sound system specifically for the use of the hearing-impaired. Both air-conduction and bone-conduction headsets were available (for a one dollar, returnable, deposit fee) for the use of hearing-impaired, Sky Show attendees. The attendee would plug the headset into one of ten sound system receptacles, located just behind the last row of seats, just east of the Planetarium Control Console.
It was the world’s first planetarium theater built with a permanent stage specifically for theatrical performances. The main stage could actually be extended into the planetarium theater; originally, this was accomplished using electric motors. Thus, when the stage was not in use, it could be retracted into the side wall, and that area of the Planetarium Theater could be used for additional seating, using portable chairs.
The Planetarium Theater actually was constructed with two stages. After the elevator takes the projector completely below the floor level, a second stage can be created above the projector (again, using electric motors), for theater-in-the-round-type presentations.
When it was decided to include an astronomical observatory in the Buhl Planetarium building, they chose not to build a typical observatory with a dome. It was decided to build an observatory which would be very visitor friendly.
One where, during cold weather, visitors could stand in a heated observing room and look through the telescope, while most of the observing equipment (except the telescope eyepiece) remained in the cold air (necessary to avoid disruption of the image by heat waves). The type of observatory they chose also permitted the public to stand normally to look though the telescope (for some astronomical images, other telescopes require the viewer to strain their neck in odd ways, to be able to look through the telescope). And, in this observatory, a child could not accidentally bump, and hence, move the telescope from the object being viewed.
Appendix C: Building Significance 2004 December Page 5 of 7
This was a “Siderostat”
observatory,” utilizing a 10-inch Sidereal Coelostat (“Siderostat-type”)
Refractor Telescope. It was the second largest operable Siderostat
observatory in the world. Although a much larger Siderostat-type telescope
was employed during a special exhibition in
While the Buhl Planetarium building was designed with a boiler room, it was never necessary to install boilers in the building! As the Allegheny Regional Branch of The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (in 1939, known as the Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny) was directly across the street from Buhl Planetarium, arrangements were made, with the City of Pittsburgh, to have Buhl Planetarium’s steam needs provided by the Carnegie Free Library boilers.
7. Its association with important cultur
The Buhl Planetarium and
The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular
Science was built at Allegheny City’s
(then, in 1939, the North Side of the City of Pittsburgh) highest traffic
intersection, the intersection of Federal and Ohio Streets (Federal Street
divided Ohio Street into East and West Ohio Streets; Buhl Planetarium was the
first building on the north side of West Ohio Street). At this intersection
Nearly all major streetcar and bus routes, traveling between Downtown Pittsburgh and North Side and North Hills points, passed this intersection, providing easy and frequent transportation to and from Buhl Planetarium. Further, a few streetcar and bus routes, such as the 77/54 North Side—Oakland—South Side streetcar line (made famous as “The Flyin’ Fraction” by popular KDKA radio morning rush-hour personality Rege Cordic in the 1960s), which traveled through many of Pittsburgh’s ethnic neighborhoods but only skirted the edge of Downtown, actually terminated in the vicinity of Buhl Planetarium. In the mid-1960s, when the Allegheny Center urban renewal project replaced several of the streets near Buhl Planetarium, these bus routes (by that time, Pittsburgh Railways Company’s “The Flyin’ Fraction” had been absorbed into the Port Authority of Allegheny County’s county-wide public transit
Appendix C: Building Significance 2004 December Page 6 of 7
system, converted from a streetcar to a bus, and given the practical and less colorful designation of “54C”) actually terminated their routes and laid-over in front of, or just west of, the Buhl Planetarium building, on the newly created side street titled Allegheny Square West (part of this street is now known as Children’s Way).
Bus lines to Mount Washington (former bus route 34B), and to the Charles Street/City View/Northview Heights section of the North Side (former bus route 19C), also terminated their route and laid-over at Buhl Planetarium. Again, these transit routes did not travel through Downtown.
Bus drivers, in their official uniform, were permitted to routinely enter Buhl Planetarium, without charge, to use the public restroom, during their layover time. After using the public restroom one day, one bus driver told Glenn A. Walsh that he really appreciated this privilege, because he knew that Buhl Planetarium’s public restrooms were always clean and well-kept; he made it a point to tell fellow drivers to use Buhl’s restroom, when in the area. And, this was very practical for the bus drivers as Buhl Planetarium was open every day of the year (except Christmas Day), most days from until late in the evening.
Today, the 54C North Side—Oakland—South Side bus route is the only bus line which terminates at the Buhl Planetarium building, or goes directly by the Buhl Planetarium building (although the renumbered 16F City View bus route, which was extended to Downtown on 1977 June 19, did travel directly past Buhl Planetarium on its outbound runs until very recently). Today, most bus routes, between Downtown and North Side and North Hills points, travel within one or two blocks of Buhl Planetarium, most traveling around the entire Allegheny Center complex on North Commons, West Commons, South Commons, and East Commons Streets.
9. Its representation of a cultur
The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of
Popular Science was designed in the same era as the World’s Fair of 1939-1940
("Building The World of Tomorrow") in
And, this was particularly important for the City of Pittsburgh, as Pittsburgh was then called the “Workshop of the World” and included a lot of major corporations (until the many corporate mergers of the 1980s, Pittsburgh was the third largest corporate headquarters city in the country, just behind New York and Chicago, respectively; Pittsburgh still remains within the top ten) which utilized technological improvements for advancement of their products. Indeed, even in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, Andrew Carnegie insisted on investing in the most technologically advanced processes for making steel in his Carnegie Steel Company (predecessor of the United States Steel Corporation).
With so many major
Appendix C: Building Significance 2004 December Page 7 of 7
The general public
primarily thought of the institution as a planetarium (instead of reciting the
long actual name, the institution and building were commonly referred to as
simply “Buhl Planetarium”), and hence, with the primary emphasis in Astronomy.
However, throughout the history of The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of
Popular Science, the R&D divisions of many Pittsburgh corporations invested
in quite a few exhibits and programs (particularly designed for the education
of high school students) for Buhl, including (but, by no means, limited to) the
annual Pittsburgh Regional School Science and Engineering Fair.
In the case of the Bell Telephone Company of Pennsylvania, not only did they provide many telecommunications exhibits for Buhl Planetarium, for a while they even funded a part-time staff person to explain these exhibits to the public! And, when Bell Telephone decided to introduce commercial Picture Phone service (real-time, video and voice telephone service; video was in black-and-white) in the early 1970s (and, they chose Pittsburgh and Chicago as the first two cities for this service unveiling), Bell Telephone provided Buhl Planetarium with two Picture Phone telephone booths, where the public could learn how to use this new technology!
10. Its unique location and distinctive physic
Buhl Planetarium and
Of course, with the planetarium dome, it does have a rather unique appearance, necessary for its function as a planetarium. It is ironic that the building just west of Buhl Planetarium, the Old Allegheny Post Office, also has a dome, although this dome was more for decoration than function.