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Envisioning a celestial reawakening at the Buffalo Museum of Science

The hidden treasure at the Buffalo Museum of Science isn’t in the basement. It’s on the roof.

Getting to it requires a trip to the fourth floor, past a giant model of Earth, and over to a locked black door in the dimly lit space exhibit. Turn the key, and the door opens to a shaft of light surrounded by a bright blue cylindrical stairwell.

Twenty steps up the turquoise spiral staircase leads visitors to the roof – and to the copper-roofed Kellogg Observatory, which hasn’t been open to the public in 17 years.

“Do not play with the paint,” warned museum President and CEO Marisa Wigglesworth.

The thick, peeling layers of lead paint and buckling wood floors surrounding the old Clark telescope would move any preservationist’s heart to pity. But thanks to a $500,000 grant from Erie County, the 1930 observatory should be welcoming visitors once again by sometime next year.

“We talk about the crowning jewel of this building’s renovation; this is it in more ways than one,” Wigglesworth said of the observatory.

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PHOTO GALLERY: Views of the Kellogg Observatory at the Buffalo Museum of Science

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The half-million-dollar grant from the county marks another giant leap forward in the museum’s four-year, $8.2 million See It Through capital campaign, which has resulted in the transformation of gallery spaces into updated and more engaging exhibits throughout the building. With the county grant, the museum will cross the $7 million fundraising threshold.

The museum’s telescope has been the iconic symbol of the campaign. The money earmarked by the county will cover the cost of an extended stairwell and a new elevator that will give visitors with disabilities access to the roof and the observatory for the first time.

Unfortunately, rehabbing the observatory and creating greater observatory access means that some things will have to go. The spiral staircase will be replaced. So will the copper dome.

Kathryn Leacock, the museum’s director of collections, said that the museum brought in a metallurgist to see if the copper could be saved but that he found the metal to be too thin and weathered to reuse. So the museum is ordering a new aluminum dome from a company that specializes in observatory roofs. Administrators are still investigating the extent to which the new dome can be made to look like the old one.

Stepping onto the Museum of Science roof is an experience of its own, with remarkable vistas of the city – the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and downtown skyline to the southwest, and the soaring steeple of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church and the dome of the Central Terminal to the south.

“This really could be an appealing event venue,” Wigglesworth said.

The pavers on the roof are the result of a $250,000 state grant from 2002, in which then-Gov. George E. Pataki took credit for renovating the rooftop deck and the observatory itself. But the observatory actually saw very little of that money beyond another coat of paint and new flooring that didn’t address any of the observatory’s structural issues.

Museum officials thanked County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz for giving them the support to make a proper renovation of the observatory an achievable goal.

“We wouldn’t be able to get to this point if the county commitment wasn’t there,” said museum marketing director Jackie Jonmaire.

Originally, the county contribution would have been enough to enable the museum to meet its original $7.1 million See It Through campaign goal, established in 2011. But administrators said that the new campaign goal has been raised to $8.2 million because of escalating costs and unforeseen expenses associated with a historic building.

Stepping up into the observatory is like stepping back in time, with hints of the old, hand-cranked, rotating dome still evident. Its wheels run along a track that was later retrofitted with a motorized chain. A fixture that looks identical to a ship captain’s wheel remains from the days when it was used to open and close the observatory aperture.

Black-and-white images of the observatory from the 1960s feature crowds of students and families streaming in and out of the small domed space and across the museum roof’s wooden deck.

One photo from 1959 also features a gleeful and newly hired Ernst E. Both, the museum’s 53-year curator of astronomy, striking a pose on the same observatory steps that Wigglesworth climbed last week. Both, the museum’s only astronomy curator, ran observatory shows on Friday nights and “sun shows” on Sundays.

Light pollution makes it impossible for a city observatory to compete with others located in more far-flung locations. The telescope, which features an 8-inch refractor, has been upgraded and rehabbed over the years, and would be rehabbed again with digital tracking and digital image capture, Leacock said. This means that everything from solar images to the rings of Saturn could be shared and manipulated by museum visitors in the space exhibit on the fourth floor.

By the end of next year, museum officials hope that a more modern observatory will ready for the public to enjoy. Though the existing telescope will be refurbished and the lower walls will remain, the new dome, upgraded technology, new interior finishes and convenient access for all visitors are expected to once again give visitors another reason to come to the museum, Wigglesworth said.

With other roof work that still needs to be addressed, museum officials say they don’t expect elevator and observatory-related construction to begin until next spring. But they say that it will be worth the wait.

“We’re doing it right this time,” Leacock said.

email: stan@buffnews.com