Erie Planetarium History, Part I

Jim Gavio, Director, Yahn Planetarium of Erie

Friday Jan 28th, 2022

During the transformation of the Watson-Curtze Mansion from a house into a natural history museum in the 1940s, the decision was made in the 1950’s to add a planetarium to the complex. In July of 1957 a Junior League of Erie committee surveyed the needs of the community for a planetarium. A Planetarium committee was then formed which among others, included Mrs. Blossom McBrier & Mrs. Strayer. The Museum’s director who also played a large role in the planetarium was Mr. John Alexic.  In preparation for the addition, museum and Erie City School District leaders visited Cleveland to learn more about the operation and management of a planetarium.  As a result of this visit, the company that built the planetarium for the Cleveland Museum of Natural History was chosen to build a planetarium in Erie. The Junior League of Erie led was instrumental in raising the funds for this project.

The Spitz Company,  led by Dr. Armond Spitz, finished construction of the planetarium late in 1959.  When it opened, it was recognized as only the 5th planetarium to be built in the state of Pennsylvania.  Mr. Spitz himself attended the facility grand opening, which came at a time when space science and exploration were making headlines – the Soviet Sputnik was launched, NASA was created and the race to the moon was about to begin!  It was a rare thing for a city the size of Erie to have a planetarium.  Many Planetariums were constructed later in the 1960’s as money became available due to the space race with the Soviet Union.

The Erie Planetarium had retained the same name for 54 years even as ownership passed from the Junior League of Erie and the School District of the City of Erie to the Erie County Historical Society.  It has become well known among planetariums in much of the United States due to its longevity and active programming.  The name changed to the Yahn Planetarium at Penn State Behrend when it was donated to the college.  Mrs. Walter Yahn heard that the planetarium was moving to Behrend and wanted to help since she was involved with the Erie Planetarium in the 1950’s as a member of the Junior League of Erie.  She participated in a parade and the Junior League Follies that raised money to build the original planetarium.

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The Erie Planetarium was housed in the carriage house of the Watson-Curtze Mansion.  The original star machine, a Spitz A2, was replaced by a Spitz A3P in 1969 and was housed under a 20-foot dome. Benches provided seating for (40) adults or (50) small children.  Shows were tailored for all ages, preschool through retirement, and could be scheduled for school and scout groups, office and birthday parties, private dinners and almost any special occasion.   Mr. Gordon Baker (pictured here)who taught Physics at Penn State Behrend became one of the early lecturers at the Planetarium who gave programs to visitors and even trained new volunteers.  The connection to Penn State Behrend had begun.


Read Part II of the Erie Planetarium History.