Lost In Space
By Rebecca Baker
Discusses results of special public hearing before Pittsburgh City Council, petitioned by the citizens of Pittsburgh, where City Council members learned of the important history of city-owned Buhl Planetarium equipment proposed for sale by The Carnegie Science Center.
That's hard to say when it's a 57-year-old machine, not a 570-year-old lizard. The "dinosaur" in question is the Zeiss II star projector, which some claim is the world's oldest in operational condition, but which now sits dormant in the closed Buhl Science Center.
An educational organization in Dallas recently offered $20,000 to take the Zeiss II off the city's hands, but a group of people fought the sale at a public hearing on May 18, saying the projector is part of Pittsburgh history.
That hearing resulted in an informal committee made up of City Council members, individuals from non-profit groups and others who are searching for anyone in the area willing to use the projector for its original purpose.
"The best option would be keeping it in its location and then turning the building into a multi-use facility," said District One Councilman Dan Onorato.
The city has had problems in recent years finding groups willing to rent or lease the small, oddly built rooms in Buhl. For years, the city leased both Buhl and the Zeiss II to The Carnegie for just $1 a year plus operating costs. When the Carnegie Science Center opened in 1991 with a newer, computerized projector, Zeiss II was left for extinction.
Money is the main problem. Both City Council and Carnegie Science Center officials say they don't want to take money from newer projects to dismantle and reconstruct the Zeiss II, but neither knows exactly what doing so would cost.
A former Buhl and Carnegie Science Center employee leading the charge against the Zeiss II sale said Buhl and the projector can still be useful to the public.
Glenn Walsh, 39, of Mt. Lebanon said most of Buhl could be converted into office space, lecture halls and venues for recitals and art exhibits. The Zeiss II could be used to demonstrate what star shows were like in the days before computers.
"The whole idea is to show stars in the sky, and Zeiss still does that.
Those fighting to keep the Zeiss II in the city really want the old planetarium reopened, according to Paul Oles, assistant director for the Carnegie Science Center's planetarium-observatory.
"I can't even begin to understand that," Oles said. "Pittsburgh has the finest planetarium in the world at the CSC."
Oles said he understands the sentimental attachment to Buhl and the Zeiss II, but newer, high-tech equipment is what people want to see.
"I was a big part of that facility for 23 years," he said. "I probably operated the Zeiss more than anyone else, but we live in a world of fiscal reality."
Even if parts of Buhl were leased out, the Zeiss II might still be silent beneath the planetarium dome. Several small arts groups have made inquiries about using Buhl for shows, Onorato said, but no one group has shown more interest than the others.
If council doesn't make a decision within a few months, the Dallas-based Navarro College Foundation's deal to buy the Zeiss II is off. CSC Director Seddon Bennington said that would be a bad move on council's part.
"It was going to be no cost to the city. They were even to pay for shipping," Bennington said. "It was to be an artifact in Dallas telling Pittsburgh history. That was a pretty good offer."
The Navarro Foundation originally thought the Zeiss II belonged to the Carnegie Science Center and offered to buy it along with CSC's $300,000 Digistar I projector. The Digistar I was sold, but the Zeiss II stayed behind.
Onorato said the chances of the Zeiss II being shipped to Dallas are slim.
"At this point, it doesn't look very good that it will be sold," he said. "We're not going to make a bad decision just to make a decision. There's no reason to rush this.