After 95 years, Leo Scanlon can truly say "Been there, done that," having co-founded the AAAP, met Einstein, built the first aluminum observatory dome, dedicated the Wagman Observatory, seen First Light through the Brashear Refractor, and on and on. Thus when Leo unveiled the state historic marker denoting Valley View Observatory on June 27th, he was totally at ease with all the attention. "It took longer to put in this marker than it took to build the dome," he joked, proving he wouldn't let all the formalities contain his marvelous sense of humor.
The dedication of the Valley View Observatory historic marker was almost ruined by a swirling rainstorm of the North Hills area which persisted until just 45 minutes before the 2:00 PM ceremony. However, Barry Mitnick and other AAAP members were able to set up a small party tent and chairs in ample time to get everyone seated. About 60 people jammed onto a traffic island barely 40 feet wide in places, right next to the roar of McKnight Road Traffic. With the aid of a sometime operable bull horn, guest speakers and Leo himself addressed the crowd, which consisted of Leo's family, AAAP members, and a surprising number of local government dignitaries.
State Senator Melissa Hart describe Leo and his colleagues who built the observatory as "so bright and creative:, while State Representative Don Walko indicated that astronomical endeavors, such as Valley View Observatory, and astronomy in general "put things in perspective for we politicians." "Astronomers" he said "have a wonderful story to tell." Andrea Sedwicki, a representative for County Commissioner Larry Dunn, said that organizations such as the Amateur Astronomers Association "help ensure that Allegheny County will keep looking to the future," and that our organization "makes the County a special place." Rod Franz, an assistant to County Commission Chairman Bob Cranmer also saluted Leo and the AAAP on behalf of Mr. Cranmer, and read the Official "Be It Resolved" Proclamation for the occasion.
Barry himself pointed out that "a series of events have conspired in a positive way" to lead to the installation of the historic marker. (Barry was referring to Leo's recent move from his Van Buren Street home after 57 years, the accidental discovery of the 10" Springfield Telescope at Bethany College, etc.) Barry called Valley View Observatory "the emblem of modern astronomy" that was constructed on what used to be called "Summer Hill" in the Ivory Avenue area. As for the dome design itself, Barry noted that an Alcoa Aluminum salesman once told Leo that a self-supporting all-aluminum dome "couldn't be done" and the Valley View was "more than a first... it was an engineering feat."
The Man of the Hour, Leo Scanlon, took a few moments to revisit the beginnings of the Valley View observatory. As is the case today, he said, street lights interfered with his first attempts at observing. His first solution was to attach a brush to the end of a long pole, dip the brush in black shoe polish and mask out the offending street lamp. He also took pot shots at street lights with an air rifle, but city workers always replaced the damaged lamps "with maddening regularity." He recalled thinking "There must be a better way to do this!" Thus was borne the idea of a domed, back yard observatory which would block the glare form nearby street lights. Leo and his late brother Larry did much of the construction work, and Leo assured his brother "would be proud" of the historic marker and the revival of V-V at the Wagman Observatory site. As for the "engineering feat" Barry Mitnick referred to, Leo described the curved joints of the dome as a "double-turn standing seam," and pointed out the he once climbed on top of the dome to prove its strength. (Thanks to that design, the dome has remained structurally sound for 68 years.)
In addition to government officials and AAAP members, a large contingent from Leo's extended family also attended the marker dedication, and were justifiably proud.
Because of the reconstruction of the nearby bridge on McKnight Road, and the narrowing of traffic into a single lane, motorists are forced to drive slowly by the Valley View historic marker, making it much easier to read. Glen Walsh marked the exact moment that the marker was unveiled: June 27 1998, 2:39:42 pm. Eastern Daylight Saving Time (18:39:42 Coordinated UT).
WHEREAS, the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh was funded in 1929 by a group of businessmen interested in studying the stars with telescopes of their own making; and WHEREAS, this non-profit educational group has grown into an energetic organization, many of whom are known throughout the nation for their excellent telescope making techniques, observational abilities, and as lecturers and writers on a variety of astronomical subjects; and WHEREAS, the Association is celebrating the dedication of an official state historical marker to commemorate the world's first aluminum observatory dome, part of the Valley View Observatory on Van Buren Street in Ross Township, which was built in 1930; and WHEREAS, the original dome, in storage for the past year will be restored to its original luster to grace a new Valley View Observatory to be constructed in Deer Lakes Park, offering future generations to use Valley View's original telescope and dome to explore the wonders of the sky; NOW, THEREORE, BE IT RESOLVED that this Board of County Commissioners does hereby commend the Amateur Astronomers Association of Pittsburgh for educating generations of Allegheny County residents to the joys of astronomy; and we join them in celebrating the dedication of the historical marker commemorating the world's first aluminum observatory dome, another landmark reflecting the ingenuity and inventiveness of the craftsmen of western Pennsylvania. This 27th day of June 1998 Bob Cranmer (Chairman) Larry Dunn Mike Dawida Glen Cannon (Chief Clerk)
On the hill just west of here, the first
known astronomical observatory with an
aluminum dome was erected in 1930.
Designed & built by Pittsburgh amateur
Leo J. Scanlon, the Valley View Observatory
stood beside his Van Buren Street home.
In the ensuing years, many of the world's
observatories were built with such domes.
Scanlon's shiny metal dome became a model
for the popular image of the modern observatory.