Death to science

Keith Johnson

Photo by Deidre Pike

With its nearby gardens and a building that doubles as a work of art, Fleischmann Planetarium is arguably one of the most scenic places on the University of Nevada, Reno, campus. That’s why so many people from Reno were outraged when they heard of the university administration’s plans to bulldoze the Planetarium to make room for another parking garage. The Planetarium staffers were told of the plans last week. The building will be demolished sometime in June, says Keith Johnson, who’s been associate director of the Planetarium for 15 years. Construction on the parking garage is scheduled to begin in the fall, right around the time the Planetarium would have celebrated its 40th anniversary. Johnson, who is still a university employee, was quite diplomatic about the topic, considering it’s the end of his world as he knows it.

This is a cool building.

Yes, it is. The architect, Ray Hellman, died not too terribly long ago. His widow called me up [after hearing the news]. She was upset, as you can imagine. … The roof is a floating roof. It’s supported by the beams at the edge of the building. It doesn’t rest on the walls. I’ve heard it called a hyperbolic paraboloid or a hyperboloid parabolic. I just tell people that the building looks like a potato chip.

What role does the Planetarium play at the university?

It’s the one part of UNR that has more contact with the public than almost any other. We project a positive image to the public. We teach young children about space and their place in the universe—things that the average citizen should have an acquaintance with.

But parking garages potentially make more money.

Yeah. They need ADA parking for Lawlor [Event Center], and this is a handy place to put it.

How are people reacting?

We started getting calls and e-mails even before the news was out [on television and radio]—nothing but expressions of outrage. A family was visiting here from Washington, and a little boy turned to his father and said, “Dad, why are they closing the Planetarium?”

Isn’t the city going to build a new science center?

The timing of this is very bad in the sense that we are still in the early planning phases for a science center. There’s no certainty it will happen. If the Planetarium disappears, that could slow down or even cancel the plans. The Planetarium [staff] has been central in talking with both cities for the past two or three years. That’s what is especially galling to me. Give us a couple of years, and we can take the concept and move it to a bigger place. Many are under the impression that the university is ready to move us downtown. The reality is that if the Planetarium is closed down, it will leave northern Nevada without a science center, other than museums, for the next three or four years—maybe forever.

Has UNR President John Lilley ever visited the Planetarium?

Not that we know of. If he has, the staff hasn’t recognized him.