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Gibbes Planetarium, Senate Street & Bull Street: 1998   29 comments

Gibbes Planetarium was part of the old Art & Science Museum at Senate & Bull. I'll do a post on the museum at some point, but the Planetarium was, in my mind, its own entity. The Planetarium was a small round brick structure with a domed roof, and from the outside looked tiny, but on the inside was quite spacious (I believe it seated 55). One of the zombie web-sites mentioning the Planetarium says it was established in 1959. I don't remember that far back of course, but we started going in the mid 1960s when it still had the original equipment. You would walk in through a short hall from the Science Museum, and there would be two rows of bench seating wrapped around the room with this black, very boxy looking contraption on a pedastal in the middle. In the 1970s or 1980s they did a major upgrade, and the black boxy projector was replaced with an almost medical-imaging looking projector full of lenses and servo motors, all controlled from a space-age console that looked to me like it belonged on the bridge of The Enterprise. Not only did the new projector whir and piroutte, it showed a vastly more numerous field of stars, and had a number of built-in special effects.

The Planetarium was open on the weekends, and that generally was when we would go. If we had cousins staying over, it was practically mandatory. They ran a number of different shows during the year. They would almost always have some sort of "identify the local constellations" show, and they would have special topic shows on black-holes, supernovas and space exploration. Part of the equipment upgrade in addition to the new star projector was the installation of remote-controlled slide projectors all around the rim of the roof, so they could script elaborate shows with non-star images projected on the different sectors of the ceiling. During the Christmas season they usually had a show speculating on what astral phenomena could have been interpreted as the "Star of Bethlehem", and during later years they did several shows dramatizing classic science fiction stories. I remember in particular, their production of Asimov's "Nightfall", about a planet lit by a number of different suns which had never experienced darkness until one fateful day..

The experience of sitting in the Planetarium as the lights went down was always special. Whoever the presenter was always had a very smooth voice, and as the stars came out, and he spoke, I was always struck by an almost physical wave of sleepiness though it passed quickly.

When the Art Museum moved into bigger digs on Main Street in 1998, they dropped the "Science" part of their mission. I had hoped that the Gibbes Planetarium might carry on on its own, but it was not to be, and now the building houses part of the USC Campus Police, and the Planetarium is apprently used as a simple auditorium. I don't know what happened to all the equipment, it's not like you can use a planetarium projector for anything else -- I hope it found a good home.

UPDATE 18 October 2009: Well, I am sorry to report this, but I went by the Planetarium on 9 October 2009 during business hours, hoping to get permission to take some pictures inside. The front desk folks of the Campus Police were very friendly, but told me that the old Planetarium space was not in fact in use by them, as I had assumed, but was closed off with no access, and that they thought the interior was falling apart. Although it has only been 11 years since the space was in use, I suppose this is possible if there are leaks or mold or whatnot. I find this quite sad.

On the plus side, I have added 11 more high-res shots of the exterior.

UPDATE 21 June 2011: Added picture [at top] of kids queueing outside the planetarium from an old Chamber of Commerce promotional book.

Written by ted on February 22nd, 2008

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29 Responses to 'Gibbes Planetarium, Senate Street & Bull Street: 1998'

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  1. I remember going to field trips to Gibbes every year as a child. Sad.

    Will

    2 Mar 08 at 3:49 pm

  2. I remember going on a field trip here in (maybe) 3rd grade and holding hands with the girl sitting next to me during the presentation, my first contact of that kind with the fairer sex. Her name was Amber. It was awesome.

    Brandon

    6 Mar 08 at 10:42 am

  3. Ah, I guess you had stars in your eyes then.. :-)

    ted

    6 Mar 08 at 11:13 pm

  4. My grandma used to take me there when I was a kid. Man my grandma was awesome.

    geoff

    8 May 08 at 9:06 pm

  5. I hung out at the science museum a lot. Never got tired of it. A wonderful man who worked there named Chris Craft would identify bugs I brought in. Every time I went I bought another of the little plastic dinosaurs they sold for 15 cents.

    I also loved the sculpture out the front door of the life-sized young woman playing with a lamb. I used to sit on her like a pony ride. It is now just inside the front door of the new art museum, and I don't think they'd let me ride on it any more.

    FirstDennis

    21 Aug 08 at 9:36 am

  6. this was the best planetarium. I went there for a field trip... also the same field trip we toured one of the natural museums and I remember this guy talking to us showing us these mineral samples and he held up this huge 14lb black quartz sample. In the planetarium when the show started I remember feeling a little dizzy/disoriented because the stars looked so real. I kept having to look at the others beside me to re-orient myself, it felt so surreal to me. Years later when we had already moved to Spartanburg our science teacher announced we were going to the Roper Mtn Planetarium in Greenville. I was really excited because I loved this one so much. And was really disappointed with it because I didn't get that same feeling of the stars being real...perhaps because they were on a more movie like screen rather than the half dome ceiling like the one here in Columbia...I think the ceiling vs. movie screen made a huge difference in the experience. So I am sad to see this place is not still there.

    Melanie Gallant

    19 Jul 09 at 6:45 am

  7. They also had a show for Halloween with kinda hokey special effects. After the lights dimmed about a minute or two into the show silhouettes of witches, etc. would fly across the star background. You'd relax and listen while the narrator expounded on the astral history of Halloween, then suddenly a clap of thunder & you'd feel water on your face!
    I guess one or more staffers were in the dark armed with water pistols. With kids in the audience, you can imagine the squeals that generated.

    John R

    5 Nov 09 at 4:46 pm

  8. Man- this totally blows. Don't know what made me think of it, haven't been there in many years and wanted to see the hours and shows. Went many times as a kid in the late 60's and early 70's, went with friends in the late 70's and early 80's, and took my daughters in the early 90's. Never got tired of the feelings and inspiration one of the shows would give me. What a loss to Columbia!

    Alan B

    24 Jan 10 at 12:07 am

  9. Hi Ted, My name is Bryan, and I was the tech producer, special effects tech and one of the presenters at the planetarium from 1993 until it closed. Indeed I was the one that boxed up the Minolta MS-10 star projector that we had gotten in the refurbishment you mentioned a few decades earlier. Almost all of the equipment went into storage at the SC State museum where the thought was that they were going to try to get a grant to create a new planetarium and observatory. If there is anything you want to know about the planetarium you can write me. I can only say that seeing these pics makes me hugely nostalgic for that place, and I'm sorry to hear that it's falling into disrepair.

    Bryan Siegfried

    13 May 10 at 3:18 pm

  10. Bryan, thanks! I have a vision of the stuff in a warehouse like the Raiders of the Lost Ark ending..

    If you have any pictures of the interior, or old programs scanned or anything like that, I would be glad to post them here..

    ted

    13 May 10 at 4:30 pm

  11. The State Museum still plans on opening a new planetarium.
    http://www.scmuseum.org/plan_visit/planetarium.aspx

    Thomas

    13 May 10 at 8:34 pm

  12. I worked here for a short while (May 96-May 97) as well while Bryan (Hi Bryan!) was there... I'll see if I have any pics cause I used to be a pain taking pics all the time...

    Elizabeth

    13 May 10 at 9:04 pm

  13. That would be great!

    You can send them to closings at columbiaclosings odt com if you do..

    ted

    13 May 10 at 9:08 pm

  14. For some remembrances of the planetarium during the 1970s, please see:
    http://columbiaclosings.com/wordpress/?p=46&cpage=1#comment-49304

    I remember the installation of the excellent Minolta MS-10 star projector; it replaced a much smaller projector, and much improved the quality of the shows.

    JWC

    18 May 10 at 8:59 pm

  15. Thanks JWC, I had forgotten that was over on the museum page.

    ted

    19 May 10 at 1:46 am

  16. i REMEMBER GOING THERE IN HIGH SCHOOL IN THE EARLY 70'S. NOW MY OLDEST GRANDSON IS INTERESTED IN CONSTELLATIONS AND THE SOLAR SYSTEM. I WAS PLANNING TO TAKE HIM TO THE PLANETARIUM OVER THE CHRISTMAS HOLIDAYS. I AM SADDENED TO REALIZE THAT I WILL NOT BE ABLE TO FULFILL THIS PROMISE.C

    CHERYL

    30 Dec 10 at 10:15 pm

  17. I brought my much younger brother down from Greenville for weekends when I was at USC as an undergraduate. A favorite outing with him was the Gibbs Planetarium. I am taking my youngest grandson on an in town adventure for a couple of days where we will stay in a hotel and do Columbia things like tourists. I had hoped the planetarium was still in operation! Sad to know it is gone to ruin.

    Sandy Breazeale

    26 Jul 11 at 1:49 am

  18. Yeah I remember how cool this was looking up at the stars, didn't the seats recline or something? I remember it as being sort of a proto-Imax kind of sensation... this and the Van de Graaf generator were two of my favorites (am I remembering that right, that they also had one of those balls that make your hair stand up?).

    Blaine

    25 Aug 11 at 2:14 pm

  19. I have a separate closing for The Columbia Museum of Art & Science. The science side of that was where they had the "jacob's ladder" device (not a VDG generator).

    ted

    25 Aug 11 at 3:47 pm

  20. I was assistant directory of the planetarium in 1972-1973. It was a small but beautiful facility of which I was proud to be a part. It housed one of the few Minolta planetarium machines in the country and had one the most realistic skies I have ever been privileged to work with. Indeed I am sorry to hear that it is no longer functioning.
    Tom Arnold

    Tom Arnold

    18 Jan 12 at 5:00 pm

  21. I remember Tom Arnold working at the planetarium in the 70’s. I first went there during elementary school field trips in the mid 60's and still have old b&w photos from those outings. Around '68 or '69 my dad took me to the planetarium for an astronomy club meeting which turned out to be the very first meeting of what later became the Midlands Astronomy Club. Bill Lazarus was the director of the planetarium at the time. Tom and/or Bill would occasionally give club members a preview of a new presentation. If I recall correctly the club meetings would start at 7:30pm I think on Wednesdays. Mac Rentz was elected the first club president and Dr. Safko from the USC astronomy dept. would, on occasion, drop by. As you walked in the front door there was a small auditorium to the left where the club would meet and give talks. In the back of the museum there was a telescope mirror grinding machine. In the mid 70's the labs for USC's astronomy course were held in the planetarium. I remember completing one lab exercise where I think, both Bill and Tom were there and would project a constellation on the dome and the student would have to identify it and give some information. Takes me back, sorry to see progress has shuttered the old facility.

    Frank

    Frank

    9 May 12 at 11:31 pm

  22. Yes, I remember the auditorium though not the lens grinding machine.

    If you have some pictures of the place in action, I would be glad to add them to the post.

    ted

    10 May 12 at 12:04 am

  23. I will look for the old pictures. May take some time to round them up, but, I'll find them and send to you. Haven't looked at them in years. I think they are all of 4th grade classmates around the statue by the entrance and in front of the three archways to the left of the front door on the side of the Museum of Art building.

    The mirror grinding machine was interesting because the astronomy club started a manual mirror grinding class in the basement of the Melton Observatory on the USC campus. During one of the meetings at the Science Museum Bill Lazarus took us back to show us the mirror grinder I thought Wow, this might come in handy, but, I never really heard much about it or saw it again. I seem to recall him saying that someone loaned it to him or the museum. I also remember Lazarus taking us through the back door of the museum to a parking lot and opening a roll-up door on a garage type building and discussing how that would be a great spot to grind a large mirror. Bill and Tom Arnold, as well as my Dad and me, and the above mentioned Chris Craft were all charter members of the Midlands Astronomy Club based out of the Science Museum. Good to hear Tom Arnold is still out there. Maybe Bill Lazarus will see your site and fill in a few details. Bet he has pictures too because he also had a color film processing room set up inside the Science Museum.

    Frank

    Frank

    11 May 12 at 1:58 am

  24. I recently celebrated my 65th birthday with my family. As a young African American female growing up in 1950's and 1960's segregated Columbia, SC, the Planetarium and Arts & Science Museum were oases where all people could visit and learn. Some friends and I would go at least once monthly with friends to look in awe at the constellations and to ponder what awaited us out there in the Universe. I now have two grandsons visiting and wanted to share the planetarium experience with them and to see the use of the new technology in that setting. Needless to say, I'm saddened to learn that it has closed. Hopefully, the new and improved version will be a part of the Columbia cultural scene in the near future.

    Mill

    6 Jul 12 at 11:15 am

  25. I would certainly like to see one in town. I don't know who would take that on though. Perhaps the State Museum..

    ted

    6 Jul 12 at 11:51 am

  26. Tom Fleming was at the planetarium in the 70s with Bill Lazarus -- not Tom Arnold. USC used to do their labs at the planetarium.

    Larry

    26 Jan 13 at 6:00 pm

  27. One other thing, I miss Mac Rentz and his wife Dixie... Mac loved astronomy and his law office had astronomy pictures posted everywhere.

    Larry

    26 Jan 13 at 6:06 pm

  28. The Planetarium wasn't so bad for a town that size, but the adjoining Science Museum was a joke. First time I went there I thought I'd spend an afternoon, but was able to see all they had in one big room in about ten minutes.

    Don

    24 Dec 13 at 11:38 pm

  29. ted

    25 Dec 13 at 12:36 am

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