Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tales from the Crypt at the Allegheny Observatory

by Bratzilla

While we didn’t intentionally set out for a night of terror at the Allegheny Observatory, we were driven there by the allure of the North Side (which incidentally has a pretty heinous history that we’ll save for another overcast day) and the fact that any building constructed in the early 1900s has to be inherently creepy. And, honestly, we liked the idea of a free tour, and have an unhealthy obsession with aliens and outer space.

But, boy, were we thrilled when we overheard a guy from the National Weather Service telling some other guys from who knows where that there were dead people in the basement. We immediately turned to each other with a “holy shit” look, and it was all we could do to stand still while we waited to hear about whether or not said dearly departed would be on the tour.

Completed in 1912, purposely built further up the hill from the original 1859 location (later sold to the Protestant Orphan Asylum) on account of air pollution, the Observatory is a work of art. With a grand exterior that pays homage to famous brains from Copernicus to Newton, the view alone is worth the trip. Inside, the old portraits of long-gone astronomers, stained glass window with hidden Masonic symbols, and wooden domes with peeling paint are also ghost approved as far as we are concerned.

After watching our tour guides handle some really big telescopes, open domes and move floors, we got to look at a nebula, a star that died 20,000 years ago, from 1,400 light years away. It pretty much looked like a faint smoke ring, but it was deceased, so we liked it a lot. But the highlight, of course, was the crypt. The final resting place for the ashes of former directors James Edward Keeler and John Brashear is reachable by descending a narrow, spiraling staircase reminiscent of a Hitchcock movie. The crypt itself is a rounded room with tiled walls – an odd little place that feels more like a tiny locker room bathroom than a tomb – but it was macabre nonetheless. We couldn’t imagine loving any job so much that we’d actually want to be buried at work, but to each his or her own. Astronomers are a strange lot and we’re not even going to try to figure them out.

As to be expected, the Allegheny Observatory guides were true space nerds, and this added an extra layer of awesome to the experience. We loved their dry senses of humor and highly recommend adding this tour to your list of things to do before you walk among the undead. Tours are free with advance reservations on Thursday (May – August) and Friday (April – October) nights. The Observatory also offers refreshments and public presentations on topics like “Galaxy Destruction in the Violent Universe.” We are told these are wildly popular so you need to make arrangements far in advance to attend. That said, there must be way more geeks in Pittsburgh than we thought.

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