Application for the Nomination as a

    Pittsburgh City Designated Historic Structure:

The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science

                          2004 December

      Appendix A: Building Description

The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science was dedicated on 1939 October 24, as the fifth major planetarium in North America. The building was constructed by the Buhl Foundation, at a cost of $1,081,500, and conveyed as a gift to the City of Pittsburgh on the day of dedication.

The real estate where the Buhl Planetarium building is located has been the property of the City of Pittsburgh since the annexation of the City of Allegheny in December of 1907. The Allegheny City Hall was located on this site, prior to the construction of The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science. Buhl Planetarium's staff parking lot (now also used by visitors to the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh), adjacent to the north wall of the building, was a City street (North Diamond Street West) prior to installation of the Allegheny Center street system in the mid-1960s.

Two significant City properties are directly adjacent to the Buhl Planetarium:

  • Allegheny Square Plaza, formerly Ober Park, and before that the Allegheny City Diamond Square (located directly south of the Buhl Planetarium building)
  • The historic 1890 building (a City Designated Historic Structure since 1974 March 15) which contains The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, Allegheny Regional Branch, and the Hazlett Theatre in Carnegie Hall (directly east of the Buhl Planetarium building). Formerly the Carnegie Free Library of Allegheny, this is the first publicly-funded Carnegie Library in America! Adjoining the Library is the world's first Carnegie Hall (opened a year before New York City's Carnegie Hall)!

With the conclusion of construction in 2004 November, for an expanded Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science now adjoins a new three-floor “Nightlight Building” and the three-floor Old Allegheny Post Office (a City Designated Historic Structure since 1972 December 26).

Also, located on Buhl Planetarium's east lawn (these three items are also City property):

The exterior of The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science was constructed of Indiana Limestone, with a 72-foot diameter external dome, consisting of copper-clad tile over the Theater of the Stars, which actually housed the Planetarium Projector and Theater inside a 65-foot diameter stainless steel inner dome. The building measures 158 feet along the front and 150 feet along the side.



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The outer dome rises above an octagon-shaped wall; seven sides are visible from Allegheny Square. At the top of each wall (just below the beginning of the outer dome) is inscribed the name of a noted Astronomer: Ptolemy, Hipparchus, Tycho, Galileo, Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton.

Six sculptures, by noted 1930s sculptor Sidney Waugh, adorn the exterior of the building. Directly above the original two public entrance doors are two reliefs of bronze covered with gold leaf. The relief above the west entrance door, titled “Primitive Science,” shows an Indian of the Mingo Tribe (which was native to the Pittsburgh region). Over the east entrance door, “Modern Science” shows a scientist in a laboratory coat holding an x-ray tube; near him are a microscope and a globe.

Directly above the two bronze reliefs is the inscription of the title of the building and institution:




Directly to the east of the “Modern Science” relief, a 1960s-era Civil Defense sign was posted, until 2002 December. As part of the building renovation, this sign was removed. We were told that the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh now has this historic sign (with the discontinuation of the Civil Defense program, this sign was legally abandoned by the Federal Government and, hence, became the property of the City of Pittsburgh) in storage. At the time of its removal, we had suggested that, when the building reopened to the public, that this Civil Defense sign be mounted just inside the original front doors as a small history exhibit. Thus far, this has not occurred.

Also, along the front of the building in Indiana Limestone are two large sculptures. West of the front doors (just above a ramp for the disabled completed by 1982) is the sculpture, “The Heavens.” In this sculpture, a kneeling female figure holds the Sun. East of the front doors is the sculpture, “The Earth,” where a powerful man sits holding a geologist’s hammer.

Two small Indiana Limestone sculptures are mounted above side doors, primarily used as emergency exits.  “Day” is mounted above the exit doors from the Hall of the Universe; these doors face east, where the Sun rises to begin the new day. “Night” is mounted above the exit doors from the Little Science Theater/Lecture Hall; these doors face west, where the Sun sets creating the night.

Also along the side walls were inscribed two Bible passages related to Astronomy. The passage on the west exterior wall states:












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This inscription still exists, however it is difficult to read due to the construction of the new three-floor “Nightlight Building” which now adjoins The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science.

Along the east exterior wall was the inscription:












During the Children’s Museum’s renovation of the Buhl Planetarium building, this inscription was removed to make-way for a large window, so children could see the building and clock tower of the historic Allegheny Regional Branch of The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, next-door. The City of Pittsburgh has asked that the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh place this inscription in storage for a possible future reassembly.

The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science was constructed from 1937 to 1939, influenced a great deal by the popular “Art Deco” architecture of that time period. The building is described as an example of “Stripped Classicism” of the 1930s, due to the lack of windows on the first floor. Windows were excluded from the original design to maximize space for exhibits and better control of building lighting, heating, and air-conditioning (Buhl Planetarium was the first publicly-owned building in the city, and possibly the state, to be constructed with air-conditioning). Classical ornament and detailing are rare (a push towards Modernism, particularly since the building was built to show the public modern progress through science and technology), except for the six sculptures, Classical frieze along the roofline, and ornament next to the name of each noted Astronomer, just under the outer dome..

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.

The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science was constructed on the site of the three-floor City Hall, for what was an independent City of Allegheny prior to December of 1907. Before 1907, Pittsburgh and Allegheny were “twin cities,” with both central business districts across the Allegheny River from each other.

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After the merger, the City of Pittsburgh did not know what to do with its “second City Hall,” which had been built in the 1860s. And, the City of Pittsburgh completed a new City Hall on Grant Street (local government district of the Golden Triangle Central Business District) in 1917, in collaboration with the County of Allegheny, which became known as the City-County Building (such city-county building collaborations are rare but not unknown; the city government of Salt Lake City is also housed in a City-County Building).

In the 1930s, the City of Pittsburgh did not want to use the old Allegheny City Hall for just another police station (ironically, the idea of using the Buhl Planetarium building as a police station was very briefly considered in 1994, following the building’s abandonment by The Carnegie Science Center). So local public officials were thrilled, in 1935, when the Buhl Foundation proposed a lasting memorial to their benefactor in the form of a planetarium and institute of popular science (as had been lobbied for, since 1930, by the Amateur Astronomers’ Association of Pittsburgh). Local politicians also felt that this would show that Pittsburgh was continuing to move forward, despite the many problems caused by the Great Depression.

The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science was an attempt, during the Great Depression, to stop the blight that had started to occur on the City’s North Side, following the merger of the City of Allegheny with the City of Pittsburgh in 1907. Located in the center of the North Side business district (the former central business district of the City of Allegheny), public officials touted its construction as the beginning of a second “civic center” for Pittsburgh (the many cultural, civic, educational, and medical institutions in the Oakland section of the City, developed during the “City Beautiful” movement of the last days of the Victorian Era, comprised the City’s first “civic center.”).

Such a claim was well-founded considering that adjacent to the new Buhl Planetarium building was the-then Carnegie Free Library of  Allegheny with its large Carnegie Hall, a major post office in a landmark building, and Ober Park, as well as major commercial establishments such as the Allegheny Market House and one of the City’s six major department stores, Boggs and Buhl (and, of course, one of the founders of this department store, Henry Buhl, Jr., had provided a large bequest which was later used to build Buhl Planetarium). Also nearby were Allegheny High School, St. Peters Roman Catholic Church, Allegheny General Hospital (with a new 20-floor tower completed just three years earlier), Fort Wayne Railroad Station, and the-then closed Phipps Conservatory (today, the National Aviary)—and the city’s oldest park, the large Allegheny Commons Park.

One of the City of Pittsburgh’s prominent architectural firms, Ingham and Boyd, designed The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science in 1937. IKM, Incorporated, located in One PPG Place, Downtown, is the successor of the Ingham and Boyd firm. The general contractor, for construction of the building, was the W.F. Trimble and Sons Company.

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.

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 1945 December 31, but the Lexington Avenue local (#6) subway train still uses the loop track (where this subway station is located) to turn around.

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  Recent Alterations to The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science

As mentioned earlier, a major renovation of The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science was completed in 2004 November, when the building became a component of a three-building complex of the expanded Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh. Several alterations occurred to The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science during this renovation. The following only describes the alterations to the exterior of the building.

Three windows were added to the first floor. In addition to the large window previously mentioned, two slightly smaller windows were added to the rear of the building; both face the staff/visitors’ parking lot. One window is in the rear of the Hall of the Universe, now used as the Children’s Museum’s traveling exhibits gallery.

The other window, mounted along the north wall of the Theater of the Stars (now also used as an exhibit gallery), replaced the world’s first permanent theatrical stage in a planetarium.

A new loading dock and freight elevator were installed adjoining the north wall of the Little Science Theater/Lecture Hall (now used as an exhibit gallery housing “The Attic” exhibit). Asphalt pavement now covers the site of the original “street elevator,” which had been used by The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science as an outside freight elevator transporting materials to the lower level Workshop; the status of this original street elevator is unknown.

Perhaps the greatest alteration is the construction of a three-floor “Nightlight Building,” which directly interfaces with The Buhl Planetarium and Institute of Popular Science at the first, second, and third floors of both buildings, at the west wall of the Buhl Planetarium building. This alteration has, for the first time, made the second and third floors of the Buhl Planetarium building accessible to the disabled (although, during the very popular 1985-1986 public viewing of Halley’s Comet in the third floor Astronomical Observatory, Buhl employees actually carried wheelchair patrons, while sitting in their wheelchairs, up the steps to the third floor for viewing the rare astronomical event).