$10M could turn dilapidated Stamford Observatory into rival for NYC’s Hayden Planetarium
Verónica Del Valle | Stamford Advocate
Nov. 6, 2021
STAMFORD — Behind a locked fence at the Stamford Museum & Nature Center, there’s a dusty building shrouded by trees.
Its whitewashed facade and silo have grown ashen over the years. Next to the front entrance, behind a formidable pillar, the words “Stamford Observatory” are emblazoned on the wall and encrusted in coppery rust.
The nature center has barred community members from entering the dilapidated facility — which had been open for more than 40 years — for three years. But while the building sat empty, the Stamford Museum & Nature Center has worked on a plan to bring the dusty edifice straight into the 21st century through a multi-million dollar renovation plan backed by community members, scientists and the government at large.
“We’re doing this project … to be of service to the community,” Stamford Museum CEO Melissa Mulrooney said.
Mulrooney pitches service to the community through science education as the cornerstone of the observatory renovation, which the organization thinks will cost $10 million. The finished center will include dedicated classroom space, a planetarium with 125 seats and an outdoor observation deck.
A pivotal part of the project involves moving the observatory’s current telescope to its new home: A historical telescope museum in New Mexico. From the Southwest, where there is less light pollution, the Stamford Museum & Nature Center can take advantage of the clear sky.
“The Stamford Observatory will get the use of (the telescope) remotely for imaging,” Bart Fried, an amateur astronomer and historic telescope expert, said. Fried helped facilitate the deal between the museum and New Mexico’s Astronomical Lyceum. “They kill two birds with one stone: They move the telescope out of the way and save it. And at the same time, they’ll get to use it again to really little or no cost to them.”
The observatory isn’t the Stamford Museum’s only large-scale modernization project. In fact, it’s part of a bigger move to freshen the museum’s public face.
Though the plans for the new observatory have started picking up speed recently, the idea’s origins are more than a decade old. The nature center floated a joint observatory and planetarium as a goal in its 2008 Master Plan for future upgrades.
The nature center completed the first part of its remodel project in November 2018 after just over a year of construction and about $5 million. The three-year-old Knobloch Family Farmhouse — named after museum benefactor William Knobloch — includes an outdoor classroom, a cidery and a maple sugar house.
While the Stamford Museum uses the farmhouse for its programming, the complex also provides a significant revenue stream for the center as a whole because one of the property’s cornerstone feature: a great hall boxed in with floor-to-ceiling windows. In addition, there’s a professional kitchen attached to the back that makes the space adaptable for private events.
All these features, Mulrooney bets, have the potential to turn Stamford into a hot spot for cultural tourism.
“Nowhere in the mid-Atlantic region is there a feature like this,” she told the city’s Planning Board at a meeting in late October. While there are other observatories scattered across the region, including one at Greenwich’s Julian Curtiss School, Mulrooney said that Stamford’s will be more advanced and more accessible to the public.
For example, Yale University has a planetarium and observatory, but the school limits the public’s use of the space. Then there’s the famed Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. But even one of the country’s most famous planetariums has its downside, according to Mulrooney.
“Because of all the light pollution in the sky and the rumbling subway in the ground,” the center cannot house a telescope, she said.
On top of that, getting children into New York City can present a challenge for schools and groups, especially those from farther away.
“We’ve been putting our kids in buses and riding down the West Side Highway to go to the Museum of Natural History for a visit: That is unsatisfactory,” Mulrooney told planning board members.
Instead of shepherding children from Stamford and beyond onto charter buses into the city, Mulrooney imagines them meandering up Scofieldtown Road to the museum’s new facility. There, she envisions kids spending longer days learning about the stars instead of spending hours on transportation.
Before Stamford becomes a gateway to the stars, however, the nature center needs to finish raising money to complete the project. The nature center has raised almost $9.9 million of the total $15 million required to complete the two projects.
The Stamford Museum planned to raise $5 million each from the state, city and private investors. For far, it has gathered $5.75 million from the state, $2.75 million from donors and $1.385 million from Stamford’s municipal budget.
The list of private contributors touches all corners of public and private life. Among the investors are former Lieutenant Gov. Michael Fedele and wife Carol, Mill River Collaborative President Arthur Selkowitz and Board of Finance Chairman Richard Freedman, according to documents provided by the Stamford Museum. The Aquarion Water Company gave to the project, along with Fedele’s insurance company Odyssey Re and Stamford-based First County Bank.
Mulrooney and the museum has asked the city for $4 million through Stamford’s capital budget process to round out its budget to complete the final phase. However, given the significant amount of money tied to the project, Mulrooney acknowledged that she would have to work with the next mayor to secure the necessary funds.
Funds aside, some of the experts the nature center has recruited as advisers on this project say that a resource like a planetarium could inspire a whole new generation of local interest in the sciences.
Once the facility is complete, “to spend the whole day there, it would be easy,” said Dr. Sarbani Basu, a Yale astronomer involved with the project. “It’s easy to look at the art gallery and look at the animals,” she said. “Then you take a planetarium show, maybe go at night to look at the night sky.”
That accessibility will help foster a whole new generation of potential scientists, according to Bart Fried, an amateur astronomer and historic telescope expert.
“You never know where the next professional astronomer is going to come from,” Fried said. “You never know which kid is going to look through an eyepiece and look at Jupiter and be stunned and never forget it and decide to go into a science career.”
Verónica Del Valle is a reporter covering growth and development for the Stamford Advocate and economic mobility for Hearst Connecticut Media Group. Verónica graduated in 2020 from American University, where she earned both her bachelors and masters degrees. Her work has appeared in NPR and The Washington Post.