Places that Matter

Hayden Planetarium

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Hayden Planetarium in the Rose Center for Earth and Space, 2011, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Hayden Planetarium in the Rose Center for Earth and Space, 2011, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Hayden Planetarium sphere from below, 2011
Redesigned home of one of the United States' earliest planetaria
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Constructed in 1935, the original Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History was the fourth planetarium erected in the United States. Designed by the firm Trowbridge and Livingston, and funded by a $650,000 loan from the New Deal-generated Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the two-story brick edifice was topped with a concrete copper-covered dome executed in the Art Deco mode -- a style that optimistically represented faith in the era's mechanical and scientific breakthroughs.

In 1935, both the planetarium and the instruments it contained were state-of-the-art. Hayden is named for banking mogul Charles Hayden, who contributed $150,000 for the purchase of the gold-standard of planetarium projectors, the Zeiss II. The giant dumbbell-shaped device had two bulbous ends, each with 16 stereopticons. One globe contained images of the sky in the northern hemisphere, and the other held images of the heavens in the southern hemisphere.The interior shell of the structure’s self-supporting dome featured a screen made of 516 stainless steel sheets. Each sheet was punctured with 32 infinitesimal perforations that allowed sound to pass through and to be absorbed by the surrounding rock cork insulation. Critics considered it “acoustically perfect,” and “the quietest building in the world.” The year it opened, the building scored a new decibel low in sound-test recording.

The original two-story building provided multple edifying environments. The hallways conveyed contemporary astronomy theories through murals, photographs and illustrations. The ground floor Copernican Chamber allowed visitors to stand in space and observe the earth from the outside in. Upstairs, a 750-seat auditorium projected journeys around the world and across time. The public could visit the heavens as they appeared 10,000 years ago, and as they would look 10,000 years in the future. On special occasions they could view the Southern Cross, the alignment of Saturn, Mars and Jupiter that may have produced the Star of Bethlehem, or the skies over Flanders Fields as they looked at Armistice.

Planetarium shows were theatrical, but they were developed to communicate reputable scientific research. They were also designed to boost collective morale. Jordan Marché, author of Theaters of Time and Space, notes that planetaria in the 1930s and 1940s emphasized faith in a better tomorrow by featuring futuristic topics as much as descriptive astronomy. Early funders and administrators hoped that the planetarium experience could counteract anxieties over the Depression and mounting global conflict by conveying “the immensity of the cosmos and the immutability of natural laws.” Indeed, the New York Times reported on Charles Hayden’s remarks at the Hayden Planetarium’s 1935 opening,

I think anything is beneficial that makes man realize that there exists a much greater power in the universe than the human being on earth, and I feel that what one sees and hears in the Planetarium should make him stop, look and listen and realize that fact. This should help for a better life.


Hayden received nearly a million visitors in its first year, and the institution's diverse programming helped to sustain public interest long afterward. In 1937, a close call with an asteroid named Hermes prompted the apocalyptic “End of the World” show, while “The Mysterious Moon,” presented lighter fare - a futuristic lunar voyage featuring a reduced-gravity baseball game. During World War II, the planetarium provided navigation training and piloting classes to Army and Navy personnel, and until the end of the 20th century, the “Stars of Christmas” program recreated the spectacle that guided the Magi to the manger. According to Joe Rao, Hayden Associate and Meteorologist for 12 News Westchester, the Hayden Planetarium changed its programming every few months, but the annual Christmas show was New York City’s second-most popular holiday spectacular, ranking just below Radio City’s Rockettes. During the holiday show, the planetarium was filled with celestial bodies, Christmas music, and William Warfield's narrations of traditional holiday texts.

Rao frequented Hayden as a child. He recounts sitting in the dimmed auditorium when steel silhouettes of the Manhattan skyline still rimmed the theater’s horizon. He remembers the voice of the live lecturer announcing that the audience would soon leave behind Central Park’s Sheep Meadow and the dusky New York City sunset, and woosh! suddenly the projector illuminated the screen with a star-splashed night sky that could only have been seen from a distant mountaintop. “Today the show has more special effects,” Rao says, “but it’s not quite as subtle.”

Rao concedes that the once-popular “End of the World” dramas would hardly go over in the 21st century. In 1937, scientists were not aware that Earth is located in a "celestial shooting gallery."  The reality of asteroids passing close to Earth once every 30 to 40 days was unknown, making catastophic programming mainly fantastical. Neither did they know of black holes, quasars or pulsars -- subjects commonly studied by contemporary scientists.

By the end of the 20th century, astronomy, astrophysics and geology were light years ahead of the data available at the time the Hayden Planetarium was established. And so was architecture. In 1985, the Art Deco Society of New York rallied to renew the building’s waning Art Deco glory by restoring fantastic details like the lobby’s bas-relief zodiac ceiling medallions, and the original light fixtures shaped like Saturn and its rings. But by 1994, the museum realized that Hayden's campy, outdated facilities limited the institution’s ability to convey up-to-date scientific knowledge. After debating renovations to the existing structure, the museum decided that the buidling needed a drastic overhaul to maintain its status as a leader in research, exhibitions and public education.  

Architects James Stewart Polshek and Todd Schliemann of Polshek Partnership (now Ennead Architects) proposed a total redesign to accommodate the institution’s needs. Ultimately, the architects' process mirrored that of their patron. Just as the planetarium needed cutting-edge facilities to fulfill its mission, the architects required cutting-edge technology to actualize their design. The building was to be a riff on the original dome, but also a new thing under the sun -- a complete sphere suspended in a glass cube.

Computer Aided Design (CAD) technology made the final building possible and heralded an architectural paradigm shift. As the New York Times’ David W. Dunlap noted in 1999, “computers are ratcheting up the wow factor in architecture, that feeling of astonishment in those who behold buildings with forms that defy orthogonal convention and – it sometimes seems - even gravity itself.”

The concept of the spherical theater has centuries-old origins, including Étienne-Louis Boullée’s 1785 Cenotaph for Isaac Newton and Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s 1816 Hall of the Stars set design for The Magic Flute. Neither were built. In 2000, Schliemann and Polshek were able to realize the 87-foot-diameter spherical Hayden Planetarium because CAD gave them a major advantage over Boullee and Schinkel. Thanks to 21st century technologies, the Hayden sphere appears to float in a 95-foot high glass box, and the height and radius of the encircling ramp are constantly changing.  Rose Center patron Frederick Phineas Rose (himself an engineer) noted that without CAD, the building would have taken three to four times as long to execute. The $210 million Rose Center and Hayden Planetarium were completed in under three years and opened to the public in February 2000.They have been called a “cosmic cathedral,” and some observers claim that Hayden is the most advanced planetarium in the world.

The sphere of the redesigned planetarium now houses two theaters. In the top section, the one-of-a-kind Ziess Mark IX Hayden Edition projector takes 429 "Space Theater viewers" on a journey to the edge of the universe. The Big Bang Theater in the bottom contains an 8-foot bowl in which laser and light special effects recreate the beginning of the universe. The 360-foot encircling Cosmic Pathway depicts 13 billion years of cosmic history, and uses the giant globe as a reference point for the size scales of the universe. 

It was hoped that visitors to the original 1935 Hayden Planetarium “should not feel the presence of the walls or ceiling and should be able to imagine themselves out in the open air with only the sky overhead.” In 1935, designers gave patrons the sense of floating in space through sound deprivation. Engineers eliminated echoes, reverberations, and all other forms of noise. For the 2000 redesign, the architects acheived a similar effect, albeit through visual trickery. Their trompe l’oeil floating sphere is achieved with a steel tripod that supports a circular truss. The upper hemisphere rests on the truss, while the lower hemisphere dangles from it. The cube’s white water glass walls contains none of iron that gives other glass a green hue. As Herbert Muschamp noted, this level of transparency softens the edges, making the cube almost disappear into the cosmos around it. Visually, the Center achieves the original desire for an open air-effect better than ever. It also still fulfills Charles Hayden’s wish that visitors realize the immensity of the universe’s power relative to their own.