H.P. Lovecraft spent Christmas and New Year 1935/36 visiting New York City and, as he told Robert Bloch in a letter, his “high point” stop was the new Hayden Planetarium. This was a just-opened New York marvel, built and fitted out in double-quick time with the aid of the philanthropist Charles Hayden. It had opened on the 2nd October 1935. Those were the days when one could go from drawing-board to opening day in 18 months, even in New York City.

The above leaflet describes the institution as it was in the 1940s, and is just about readable. The top postcard shows a charcoal drawing by Walter Favreau.

The Planetarium had a huge 700+ seat circular projection chamber, and permanent/temporary exhibition galleries on the history of astronomy and the solar system. It was far more than a planetarium, being creatively masterminded throughout by the pioneering cosmic artist and multi-media designer Walter Favreau. As such it was far more than a quick 90-minute in-and-out popcorn show for Lovecraft. It had several giant meteorites on display, and was the sort of place a keen astronomer and science-fiction writer might spend a day and an evening. Lovecraft went twice, and probably lingered. His comment that it “seems to be crowded at all hours” might suggest that at least one of his visits was in the evening.

His fiction writing days were over by this point, having written “The Haunter of the Dark”, but the Hayden Planetarium went on to inspire many others of genius. As Lovecraft told Bloch, the institute was “the most impressive educational device I had ever encountered”. Over the subsequent years and decades it became a vital place for interesting new generations in outer space and the stars, and also provided work for many early space artists. By 1952 it had seen about five million visitors.

Here is Lovecraft in a letter to Galpin of January 1936, describing his two visits…

On two occasions — once with Sonny [Belknap Long] & once with Sonny & Wandrei — I visited the new Hayden Planetarium of the Am.[erican] Museum, & found it a highly impressive device. It consists of a round domed building of 2 storeys. On the lower floor is a circular hall whose ceiling is a gigantick orrery — shewing the planets revolving around the sun at their proper relative speeds. Above it is another circular hall whose roof is the great dome, & whose edge is made to represent the horizon of N.Y. as seen from Central Park.

In the centre of this upper hall is a curious projector which casts on the concave dome a perfect image of the sky — capable of duplicating the natural apparent motions of the celestial vault, & of depicting the heavens as seen at any hour, in any season, from any latitude, & at any period of history.

Other parts of the projector can cast suitably moveable images of the sun, moon, & planets, & diagrammatick arrows & circles for explanatory purposes. The effect is infinitely lifelike — as if one were outdoors beneath the sky. Lectures — different each month (I heard both Dec. & Jan. ones) — are given in connexion with this apparatus.

In the corridors on each floor are niches containing typical astronomical instruments of all ages — telescopes, transits, celestial globes, armillary spheres, &c. — & cases to display books, meteorites, & other miscellany. Astronomical pictures line the walls, &c; at the desk may be obtained useful pamphlets, books, planispheres, &c.

The institution holds classes in elementary astronomy, & sponsors clubs of amateur observers. Altogether, it is the most complete & active popular astronomical centre imaginable. It seems to be crowded at all hours — attracting a publick interest in astronomy which did not exist when I was young.

One of the backlit displays of the 1950s.

Doubtless Lovecraft would have thought of how much his grandmother Robie (Rhoby) would have admired such a place…

My maternal grandmother, who died when I was six, was a devoted lover of astronomy, having made that a specialty at Lapham Seminary, where she was educated.

As a boy he inherited her astronomy books and, it seems, some of her equipment.

Lovecraft does not mention the giant hallway paintings, indicating only that “Astronomical pictures line the walls”. One might imagine dull diagrams. But it seems that many were either quite visionary or were early imaginative ‘space art’ in the Chesley Bonestell manner. Here we get an idea of the scale of the visionary hallway art by Favreau, which was apparently also boxed and backlit for added effect.

On the right, scientific director of the Hayden Planetarium, Dr. Clyde Fisher. On the left, probably the artist and designer Walter Favreau.

Lovecraft might have especially relished the large-scale hallway painting made from this 1934 pre-production miniature by Walter Favreau of the ‘Destruction of New York’. The lead designer and artist Favreau was especially interested in presenting cosmic catastrophe, and his planetarium sky-show apparently ended by illustrating five different ways the earth might one day perish. One ending featured a gigantic alien moon hurting toward the earth.

The idea that the sun would suddenly engulf our earth became a replacement for a previous doomsday scenario well-known in Lovecraft’s youth and young manhood. Here is H. G. Wells in 1931, remembering the way that this false scientific consensus be-numbed and hobbled the optimism of the late Victorians and early Edwardians, and indeed the world…

… the geologists and astronomers of that time told us dreadful lies about the “inevitable” freezing up of the world — and of life and mankind with it. There was no escape it seemed. The whole game of life would be over in a million years or less. They impressed this upon us with the full weight of their authority, while now Sir James Jeans in his smiling [book] Universe Around Us waves us on to millions of millions of years. Given as much as that man will be able to do anything and go anywhere, and the only trace of pessimism left in the human prospect today is a faint flavour of regret that one was born so soon.

This is from his 1931 preface to a new edition of his famous book The Time Machine (1895). Wells refers to the idea that the Sun only had a limited store of material to burn, and must inevitably cool as it would use this up before another million years had gone by — and with its depletion the Earth was also forever cooling and would relatively soon become inhospitable to life. Here is the Wells of 1894, noting the consensus of his day…

On the supposition, accepted by all scientific men, that the earth is undergoing a steady process of cooling …” (“Another Basis for Life”, Saturday Review, 22nd December 1894).

Back home in Providence in the Autumn of 1936 the impoverished and increasingly ill Lovecraft was equally misled. He laboured at his desk not on new cosmic fiction, but on ‘Suggestions for a Reading Guide’. This being a long and involved general survey which was set to be the concluding chapter of Anne Tillery Renshaw’s Well Bred Speech — Lovecraft was effectively ghost-writing the book from her short chapter outlines for this textbook guide to English usage. He broke his health to get it finished, staying awake for 60 hours at a stretch. His ‘Suggestions’ chapter was discarded by Renshaw. But he slipped in one paragraph on the need for basic books on astronomy, mentioning the need to own a good star-atlas and planisphere…

The best contemporary star-atlas is Upton’s, but a quicker working knowledge of the constellations can be obtained by the use of a small revolving planisphere, such as is sold for a quarter at the new Hayden Planetarium in New York.

This one is from the Hayden in the 1950s, but they had looked much the same a decade or so earlier…

S.T. Joshi notes in I Am Providence

Lovecraft bought two 25¢ planispheres [at the Hayden] and charitably gave them to [Belknap] Long and Donald Wandrei, so that they would make fewer mistakes in citing the constellations in their stories.

Finally here is the first scientific director of the Hayden Planetarium, Dr. Clyde Fisher. He was also the put-upon general manager for the first two years, but then a professional house manager was brought in and he was given the happier job of Curator of Astronomy. His portrait has since taken on a most Lovecraftian cast. Seemingly through natural decay in the archives, rather than the creeping invasion of cosmic outer entities, but you never know

Further reading:

* “The Man Who Plays God”, a 1950 Mechanix Illustrated profile of the pioneering artist and designer Walter Favreau who masterminded the creative and presentational aspects of the Hayden Planetarium, including designing the sky-shows.

* More can also be found at the Hayden Planetarium website. It still exists, and welcomes donations in these difficult times. They might also welcome funding to locate and digitise their Sky: Magazine of Cosmic News, which began November 1936. It evidently featured a range of artists, not always purely astronomical. Here is a 1938 edition of Sky responding to the famous War of the Worlds broadcast…

* The current magazine of their parent Museum is Rotunda, which might welcome a good scholarly article on Walter Favreau. Favreau has evidently been utterly forgotten, even by the many assiduous historians of the space arts, space education and early multimedia. He appears to have begun his career as a toy-maker and tinkerer-inventor in New York City in the early 1910s, had a studio in the late 1920s at 20 East 41st Street making scale-models for architects, and was still being referred to as the creative director of the Planetarium in 1952 — when he was busy constructing a 32-foot scale-model of a von Braun moon rocket. One would expect to find him being at least mentioned in the substantial recent history of the form, Theaters of Time and Space: American Planetaria 1930-1970 (Rutgers University Press, 1987, 2005), whose author had a Doctoral Student Grant-in-Aid of Research for sustained work in the Hayden archives. Rather surprisingly this book has no mention of the USA’s leading planetarium artist of the period, though does find space for several sections on ‘planetariums and gender’.