Morehead History

Part 2 – Construction

Morehead Planetarium under construction - 1948
Construction workers and building materials assembled around the half-completed Planetarium in 1948. View from the rear of Graham Memorial (now home of the Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence). Image courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.

When first opened in 1949 after seventeen months of construction, Morehead Planetarium was unprecedented. The first planetarium in the South, it was only the sixth to be built in the United States. Designed by the same architects who planned the Jefferson Memorial, the cost of its construction, $3 million, made it the most expensive building ever built in North Carolina at the time. The same construction (not including the 1972 addition) in today's dollars would be nearly $50 million.

Since Zeiss – the German firm that produced planetarium projectors – had lost most of its factories during World War II, there were very few projectors available at the time. Morehead had to travel to Sweden – where he had previously served as American ambassador – to purchase a Zeiss Model II to serve as the heart of North Carolina’s new planetarium.

Morehead Planetarium was officially dedicated during a ceremony held on May 10, 1949 and attracted some of the North Carolina’s most prominent citizens. U.S. Senator Frank Porter Graham, N.C. Governor Kerr Scott, Acting University President William Carmichael, University Chancellor Robert House, and John Motley Morehead III as well as other members of his family attended the ceremony. Following the dedication, assembled dignitaries viewed the Planetarium’s first show, “Let There Be Light,” narrated by Planetarium Director Roy K. Marshall.

While "Let There Be Light" was the Planetarium's first show, it would be followed later in 1949 by another show seen perhaps by more Morehead Planetarium and Science Center visitors than any other show to date: "Star of Bethlehem." This planetarium show was designed to take full advantage of Zeiss projection technology and was revised several times (its final revision was in 2002) before its retirement when Morehead's Zeiss VI star projector was decommissioned and removed in spring 2011.

The building that Morehead constructed under the counsel of Harlow Shapley wasn’t just another staid lecture hall but was rather a means of projecting science education to a wider audience -- one out beyond the stone walls of the University.

Planetariums were seen as a powerful tool for education. In 1925, Elis Stromgren, director of Copenhagen Observatory, lauded, “Never has a means of entertainment been provided which is so instructive as this, never one which is so fascinating, never one which has such general appeal. It is a school, a theater, a cinema in one; a schoolroom under the vault of heaven, a drama with the celestial bodies as actors.”

Audio Gallery

+John Motley Morehead presents Planetarium to the state of North Carolina. Listen to audio clip. MP3, 676 KB

+Sen. Frank Porter Graham speaks during dedication ceremony. Listen to audio clip. MP3, 856 KB

+The Planetarium's first director, Roy K. Marshall, narrates the Planetarium's first show, "Let There Be Light." Listen to audio clip. MP3, 1.1 MB

Audio clips courtesy of the North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Library.

Architectural Cousins

The architectural firm of Eggers and Higgins, the same firm that had previously designed the Jefferson Memorial, designed the Morehead Planetarium Building. From the West Entrance, visitors can see the influence of the Jefferson Memorial design on the building including the dome and columns. The Jefferson Memorial design was, in turn, based on the Pantheon in Rome.

Morehead Building West Entrance
Morehead West Entrance
Built 1947-1949

Jefferson Memorial
Jefferson Memorial
Washington, D.C.
Built 1938-1942

Rome, Italy
Built A.D. 117-125