Allegheny Observatory work ‘putting back missing pieces’
August 15, 2016 12:00 AM
The exterior of the Allegheny Observatory.
Franco Associates construction company works on the wall of the Allegheny Observatory in Observatory Hill.
By Kate Giammarise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
On a North Side hill far above much of the city, the Allegheny Observatory has helped Pittsburghers see the night sky for more than 100 years.
Now, a project at the observatory is restoring a missing piece of the building’s original grandeur.
The ongoing work will “finally make the building whole again,” said Jeff Slack, preservation planner at Pfaffmann + Associates, the firm leading the project.
Construction on the observatory, located in Riverview Park in the city’s Observatory Hill neighborhood, started in 1900. By 1903, scientists were working there and the structure was fully occupied and outfitted by 1912. The building is owned by the University of Pittsburgh and is still in use.
Currently, workers are putting back a 65-foot-long section of the entablature — the area above the columns and below one of the building’s three domes.
“The building really is intact and retains all of its original defining features,” Mr. Slack said. “The only thing missing was this entablature. Restoring it makes it look like it did when it was originally constructed.”
The low wall was taken down four or five decades ago due to its deteriorating condition. Luckily, the pieces were carefully removed, numbered, and stored in the lower level of one of the towers, looking ahead to the day when they could be reassembled.
The work is being guided by the original shop drawings of the Northwestern Terra Cotta Co., available through the National Building Museum.
When fully restored, the entablature will display the names Airy, Struve, Arago, Bessel, Kepler and Brahe, commemorating famed astronomers George Biddell Airy, Otto Struve, Francois Arago, Friedrich Bessel, Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe. They will join other names displayed on the building, including Sir Isaac Newton and Samuel Pierpont Langley, the observatory’s first director.
“We're putting back missing pieces,” Mr. Slack said.
Lou Coban, who manages the observatory, said he sees the work and restoration of the names on the wall as staying true to the building’s original mission of public education about astronomy.
“This place was actually built with the public in mind,” Mr. Coban said. “So [early interim director] John Brashear long ago said, ‘… The Allegheny Observatory shall remain forever free to the people,’ ” The tour program remains free, as well as a public lecture series and the annual open house.
Pitt received a Keystone Historic Preservation Grant from the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office for the project.
Earlier preservation projects at the observatory restored the area around the front entrance, as well as the columns around the southeastern dome. The project is in conformance with the Department of the Interior’s standards for preservation to be true to the original design detail, said Rob Leibow, senior manager of planning and design at Pitt.
“We’re fortunate that the University of Pittsburgh owns this building,” Mr. Slack said. “The university has been a very good steward.”
Kate Giammarise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.
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