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Return of the Arlington Planetarium: Facility to Reopen After Existential Crisis

Alice Monet stands inside the planetarium as renovation is about to be completed.

Alice Monet stands inside the planetarium as renovation is about to be completed. Photo by Michael Lee Pope.

It looks like something from space, a Neo-Brutal landmark that descended next to Washington-Lee High School. Even today it seems out of place on the outskirts of Clarendon, as if it arrived in a horror movie or an outrageous dream. The 1970 Arlington Education Center paired a curved administration building with a futuristic dome at its entrance facing the intersection of North Quincy Street and 14th Street North.

“This looked like a spaceship had just landed. It was fabulous,” said Alice Monet, who was a student at Washington-Lee when the building opened. “The way the Education Center curves over and the planetarium is at its focus, they are wedded to each other. One form reflects the other.”

The planetarium has always been a key component of the architectural design. Generations of students and administrators have come and gone from this spot, although trends in architecture have moved toward glass and steel. Meanwhile, student enrollment trends have spiked, and administrators who work inside the administration building became increasingly concerned about the $400,000 cost of upgrading the equipment at the facility. So they decided to shut it down and convert it to a classroom.

“It was the most unfortunate decision possible,” said Monet, an astronomer whose daughter now attends Washington-Lee. “I was horrified and disappointed and motivated to come talk to the School Board.”

THE SPRING OF 2010 could have been the end of the planetarium. Instead it became a turning point. Within a month of Arlington Superintendent Patrick Murphy’s decision to scrub the mission of the planetarium, concerned parents formed Friends of the Planetarium. Their mission — to boldly go where no one has gone before. Members formed a board of directors and began negotiating.

“We came to an agreement with them that over the course of the next year, they would have a chance to raise the money with different points along the way,” said Connie Skelton, acting assistant superintendent who was science supervisor at the time. “If they were not successful, we would go ahead with our plan to close the planetarium.”

The stakes were sky high, beyond the sky even. So the Friends went to work, making phone calls and holding fundraisers. When the year was over, they raised $402,800 — a full $2,000 more than was needed. Members presented a check to the School Board early last year, and the school administration began to renovate the building. Administrators say the planetarium has a “wow factor” that has the power to inspire students in the same way it caught the attention of Alice Monet 30 years ago.

“A lot of our kids don’t even see the stars hardly with all the ambient light that we have in Arlington,” said Skelton. “So it’s just an opportunity to take a little time, sit back and realize that there’s a lot more to the world and the universe than just Arlington.”

THE PLANETARIUM is budgeted for about $180,000 a year. The vast majority of that will come from the county transfer, although the fiscal year 2013 budget assumes that the operation will generate about $8,500 a year in ticket sales. The school system plans to spend $72,000 for salaries, $46,000 for benefits, $25,000 for contractual benefits, $5,000 for supplies and $2,000 for equipment.

“It really is a partnership between the friends and the school system,” said School Board member Abby Raphael. “This is a resource that can be used by the students and the community, so it’s a partnership that has worked very well.”

The $4000,000 from the Friends paid for a new digital projector, new seating and a new interior shell. The county school system picked up the rest of the $1 million tab, which included removing asbestos and making the building handicapped accessible.