Dome Construction of
The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science, Pittsburgh
Autumn, 1938

Photo of 
construction of the building and dome of Buhl Planetarium, Pittsburgh, Oct. 22, 1938
Photograph shows progress on the construction of building and dome of Pittsburgh's
Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science, on October 22, 1938 (a year before
the building opened to the public). This photograph was taken from the roof of the
Boggs and Buhl Department Store (razed in the 1960s}, one block south
(on the other side of Ober Park, renovated by the city at the same time as construction
of Buhl Planetarium) of The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science.

By Glenn A. Walsh

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History of The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science, Pittsburgh:

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Internet Web Site Master Index for the History of
The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science, Pittsburgh

The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science was constructed, between 1937 and 1939, on the Lower North Side of Pittsburgh in what once was the central business district of Pittsburgh's "sister city," the City of Allegheny. In fact, the Buhl Planetarium building was built in Diamond Square, on the former site of the Allegheny City Hall.

Just west of the Buhl Planetarium building is another domed building which formerly housed the main Post Office of Allegheny City; this building, finished in 1897, is now used by the Pittsburgh Children's Museum. Just east of the Buhl Planetarium building is the 1890 building which houses the first publicly funded Carnegie Library and the very first Carnegie Hall in the world(New York City's Carnegie Hall did not open until more than a year later!). This Library continues to be used as the Allegheny Regional Branch of The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh; Carnegie Hall has been modified and now holds the Hazlett Theatre. Three other well-known buildings in the area, which were razed, include the Allegheny Market House and Boggs and Buhl Department Store in Diamond Square and the Federal Street or "Fort Wayne" Station of the Pennsylvania Railroad a block further south. About the same time Buhl Planetarium was constructed, Diamond Square was transformed into Ober Park; with the urban renewal of the 1960s, and the construction of Allegheny Center, this park was transformed again in the Allegheny Square Plaza[which, once again, has a fountain--now, in the center of a small amphitheater].

At the urging of the Amateur Astronomers' Association of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh's Buhl Foundation[then the thirteenth largest foundation in the country] agreed to construct a planetarium for Pittsburgh in 1935. A lease agreement, between the Buhl Foundation and the City of Pittsburgh, for construction of this new institution was signed on July 20, 1937; demolition of the Allegheny City Hall occurred in the Autumn of 1937 with construction of the new building beginning in the Spring of 1938. Cornelius Scully, Mayor of the City of Pittsburgh, and other public officials participated in the official groundbreaking for Buhl Planetarium on April 14, 1938. Of course, this event was covered by Pittsburgh newspapers and radio stations. Dave Garroway, who went on to be the first host of NBC-TV's "Today Show" in the 1950s, covered this event for Pittsburgh's KDKA Radio[the nation's first commercial radio station which had started by broadcasting the Harding--Cox U.S. Presidential Election Returns on November 2, 1920].

Photo of Buhl 
Planetarium, Pittsburgh in October of 1939 Photo of Buhl Planetarium 
dome, in Pittsburgh, October of 1999

The exterior dome of The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science, Pittsburgh,
as it appeared in October of 1939(first photograph) and October of 1998(second photograph).
The architect for The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science was Ingham and Boyd and the general contractor was the W.F. Trimble and Sons Company. Construction of Buhl Planetarium's exterior dome began on October 11, 1938. This dome was erected by the R. Guastavino Company.

Located at 500 Fifth Avenue in New York City, the R. Guastavino Company was owned in 1938 by Rafael Guastavino, son of the company's founder who had the same exact name; the founder died in 1908. This company is well-known for their work on New York City's first subway called the IRT[ Interborough Rapid Transit], particularly for the elegant series of timbrel vaults, known as the Guastavino Arch, in the City Hall Subway Station, which opened in 1904. Regrettably, this particular subway station has been closed to the public since December 31, 1945, but the Lexington Avenue local (#6) subway train still uses the loop track[where this subway station is located] to turn around.

Photographic portrait 
of Frank T. Bretherton, seated. The R. Guastavino Company's Construction Superintendent, for the erection of Buhl Planetarium's exterior dome, was Frank Tisdale Bretherton(pictured to the left, circa 1914). Frank Bretherton immigrated to the United States from England in 1908, at age 24. During his career with the R. Guastavino Company, Frank Bretherton supervised many construction projects between 1915 and 1939; he died in 1941.

Frank Bretherton married Mildred(Millie) Taylor Bretherton in New York on December 12, 1913. Frank and Millie Bretherton had two children, Lionel Tisdale Bretherton born September 22, 1914 and Ralph Aston Bretherton born August 3, 1916. Click here to see a portrait of the young couple, taken in Manchester, England in early 1914, while visiting family shortly after their wedding.

Millie Bretherton died during a flu epidemic in 1918. More than 21 million people died world-wide, 600,000 in the United States, during the 1918 flu epidemic. In some cases this flu epidemic devastated entire towns, such as the Pittsburgh suburb of Munhall, home of the Homestead Steel Works of the United States Steel Corporation[formerly the Carnegie Steel Company Limited].

Several other projects in the Pittsburgh area included construction supervised by Frank Bretherton, for the R. Guastavino Company: U.S. Post Office and Courts Building on Grant Street[also, see this link], City-County Building, Heinz Memorial Chapel[next to the 42-story Cathedral of Learning on the campus of the University of Pittsburgh], A.W. Mellon residence, and one or more buildings of the Carnegie Institute of Technology[now Carnegie Mellon University]. The construction of other buildings, which included projects supervised by Mr. Bretherton for the R. Guastavino Company, include the Supreme Court of the United States and the Washington National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.; the Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadephia; Buffalo City Hall; Princeton University Chapel; Duke University Chapel; West Point Military Academy Gymnasium; Bellevue Hospital, Western Union Building, and The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine[World's Largest Cathedral!] in New York City; and numerous other projects in New York and New Jersey.

During construction of this dome, in the Autumn of 1938, Frank Bretherton wrote a series of letters[sixteen known letters] to the R. Guastavino Company[most letters addressed to Mr. Guastavino] regarding the progress and problems associated with the dome's construction. Image of Buhl 
Planetarium's Zeiss II projector displaying the stars Nan Cattell, granddaughter of Frank Bretherton, found the carbon copies of these sixteen letters [maintained by Frank Bretherton] in April of 2001, among the personal effects of her father, Ralph Aston Bretherton, after her father passed away.

Ms. Cattell graciously provided the carbon copies of these letters for inclusion in the History of The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science Internet web site. Links are provided, to each one of these letter carbon copies. Following the completion of this section of the web site, a CD-ROM containing images of all of these letter carbon copies were donated, for preservation, to the Library and Archives of the Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania at the Senator John Heinz Pittsburgh Regional History Center.

All of Frank Bretherton's letters were handwritten; apparently, typewriters were not commonly found on construction sites, in this era. The letter carbon copies were maintained by Frank Bretherton in a "Standard Correspondence Book" bound message pad. This message pad included blank pages, which Frank Bretherton used to record the carbon copy of each letter and lined pages[only lined on the front; blank on the back]. The blank and lined pages alternated throughout the message pad. Each original letter[sent to New York] was written on the lined sheets, while the message was carbon-copied on the blank sheets; a blue piece of carbon paper is included with this message pad.

All of the scanned images were enlarged to ensure readability, since the carbon copies are old, and all are handwritten. Due to this enlargement, these are large JPEG image files; as such, each page may take some time to load on older model computers and computers using telephone modems. Also, a few of the scanned images of the carbon copies are very light and difficult to read. For these reasons, all pages of the letter carbon copies are transcribed on a HTML page, which should load fairly quickly. Both the carbon copy of each page, and the transcription of each page, are included on this Internet web site.

One interesting anecdote regarding this business correspondence: both the erection of the Buhl Planetarium dome and the delivery of the U.S. Mail, apparently, continued on normal schedules on Friday, November 11, 1938. In the November 11 letter, Frank Bretherton begins by acknowledging the receipt of Mr. Guastavino's letter of November 10: "I have your letter of yesterday the 10th." Although November 11 would have commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the Armistice of World War I, it seems that work continued in the strong labor city of Pittsburgh, as did postal deliveries.

And, it is fascinating to think that it only took one day for a letter to arrive in Pittsburgh, from New York City, in 1938; today, such delivery usually takes two days. Air Mail delivery was probably used for this one-day service; however today, nearly all long-distance mail goes by air. To receive one-day delivery service today, between New York and Pittsburgh, an express service from the U.S. Postal Service, or one of the private courier services, would have to be employed. The cost differential, between First Class Mail and the express service is much greater today, than the cost differential between First Class Mail and Air Mail in 1938.

Buhl's exterior dome is composed of tile, covered with copper; this dome has a diameter of 72 feet. When The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science was dedicated, on October 24, 1939, the copper-clad exterior dome had a shiny appearance. Weathering of the copper, over the years, has led to the green dome we see today.

It must be remembered that the exterior dome, which most people are familiar with, is not the dome used to actually show the stars of the night sky in Buhl's Planetarium Theater. A 65-foot diameter stainless steel inner dome is provided, in the Theater of the Stars, as the projection screen for Buhl's Zeiss II Planetarium Projector; the top of this interior dome is 42 feet above the floor of the Planetarium Theater. The 15-foot gap between the exterior and interior domes is needed for the Theater's sound system, electrical wiring, the ventilation, heating and air conditioning systems, as well as the work lights and emergency lights.

Although it looks solid, the interior dome is actually composed of thousands of tiny holes; without these holes, the Theater of the Stars would be a large echo chamber! The 15-foot gap between the exterior and interior domes also allows for acoustic padding, to prevent the outer dome from giving an echo effect. Of course, placing acoustic padding on the inside of the interior dome[if this was the only dome which existed] would not permit the proper display of the stars and other celestial bodies on the dome.

The thousands of holes also allow for proper ventilation of the Theater. In addition to projecting the stars and other images onto the interior dome, three-dimensional objects can be lighted from directly behind the inner dome for viewing by the planetarium show audience. At the beginning of Buhl Planetarium performances, called "sky shows," the lecturer would often turn on the work lights behind the interior dome, to show the audience how transparent the interior dome really is.

The creche displayed during the seasonal show, "The Star of Bethlehem," was a three-dimensional nativity scene illuminated from just behind the interior dome. In some years called "The Christmas Star," this audience favorite has been shown every Christmas season since the Buhl Planetarium opened in 1939. This show continues to be presented each holiday season in the Henry Buhl, Jr. Planetarium at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Science Center.

Also remember that, unlike the domes at the Valley View Observatory[first observatory in the world with an all-aluminum dome!(1930) --to be restored, in the next few years, by the Amateur Astronomers' Association of Pittsburgh], Allegheny Observatory[of the University of Pittsburgh, located on a high hill, three miles north of Buhl Planetarium], or other major astronomical observatories, neither the exterior nor interior domes of Buhl Planetarium actually open to the sky. Observatory domes open so the telescope can view celestial objects in the sky. An accurate and realistic depiction of the night sky is projected by the Zeiss II Planetarium Projector onto the interior dome of Buhl Planetarium's Theater of the Stars, rain-or-shine!

Buhl Planetarium's Zeiss II Planetarium Projector is now the oldest operable, major planetarium projector in the world! All other major planetarium projectors, now in operation, are younger than Pittsburgh's 1938 gem! As a mechanical/optical instrument from the dawn of the age of projection planetaria, Buhl's Zeiss II was specifically designed to project images of the stars, and other celetial objects, onto the 65-foot diameter inner dome in Buhl's Theater of the Stars. And, although the newer computerized planetarium projectors have advanced capabilities, the "star picture"[the contrast between the stars and the darkness of space] presented by the Zeiss II is unsurpassed by any other projector.

Zeiss II Planetarium Projector of the Buhl
 Planetarium, Pittsburgh, shown in elevator pit.
This photograph shows Buhl Planetarium's Zeiss II Planetarium Projector in the elevator pit,
below the Theater of the Stars. Buhl's projector was the first planetarium projector in the world
to be placed on an elevator--a fairly unique "worm-gear" elevator produced by the
Westinghouse Electric Corporation.

Carbon Copies of Actual 1938 Correspondence
Regarding Construction of Buhl Planetarium's Dome

Five color photographs of the Buhl Planetarium exterior dome, taken from different angles in October of 1998.

Other Images of Construction of Buhl Planetarium's Dome

Other Photographs of The Buhl Planetarium Construction Project(1937-1939)

Other Photographs of the Zeiss II Planetarium Projector

More Information Regarding the Theater of the Stars,
The Planetarium Theater of The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science

Cross-section of Buhl Planetarium Building
Showing Distance Between Outer Dome and Inner Dome

Other Architectural Plans of Buhl Planetarium Building

History of the Lower North Side of Pittsburgh
Including Buhl Planetarium and Carnegie Library

Internet Web Site Master Index for the History of
The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science, Pittsburgh

Other Internet Web Sites of Interest

History of The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science, Pittsburgh
Including the oldest operable, major planetarium projector in the world !

History of the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, Chicago
America's First Major Planetarium !

History of Astronomer, Educator, and Optician John A. Brashear
Friend of Andrew Carnegie

History of Andrew Carnegie and Carnegie Libraries

History of The Duquesne Incline, Pittsburgh
Historic Cable Car Railway Serving Commuters and Tourists since 1877 !

Antique Telescope Society
And, information regarding the Society's September, 2001 Convention in Pittsburgh.

Other History Links

Disclaimer Statement: This Internet web page is not affiliated with the Henry Buhl, Jr. Planetarium and Observatory,
The Carnegie Science Center, or The Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh/Carnegie Institute.

This Internet, World Wide Web Site administered by Glenn A. Walsh.
Unless otherwise indicated, all web pages in this web site are Copyright 2001, Glenn A. Walsh, All Rights Reserved.
Additions and corrections to: