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It's no prank, MIT is installing a new skylight on "Great Dome"

Posted by Brock Parker  September 28, 2012 01:53 PM

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Construction is underway atop MIT's Great Dome. Photo by Brock Parker.

Pranksters have perched replica police cruisers and airplanes atop MIT’s Great Dome, and have even turned it into the R2D2 character from “Star Wars.”

But officials from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology insist that what’s happening at the top of the university’s iconic building right now is no joke: It’s construction.

Scaffolding erected at the top of the dome is part of a construction project to undo a war-time protective measure taken by the university during World War II, said Dick Amster, the director of campus planning, engineering and construction for the MIT facilities department.

In 1942, as research was underway at MIT to develop radar that would be used in the war, the university blacked out the oculus, or skylight, at the center of the dome to prevent it from being used as a beacon for enemy bombers, according to the school.

“It would have made a good target,” Amster said.

But this year, with the 100-year anniversary of MIT’s 1916 move to Cambridge approaching, the University has started a project to remove the old oculus and restore the original intent for the dome. Amster would not disclose the cost of the restoration project.

The Great Dome is part of MIT’s Building 10, which was one of the main group of buildings the school moved into in when it relocated from Boston’s Back Bay to Cambridge, Amster said.

“That structure, you can’t go a day at MIT without either seeing a representation of it, whether it’s a picture on a wall, on a business card, or the actual building itself,” Amster said.

The dome is approximately 100 feet in diameter and Amster said workers are now taking apart the old oculus, which has a diameter of 26 feet, and its frame at the center. A stainless steel frame will be built that will support the new oculus, which will have several hundred amethyst-colored glass blocks that will be two-inches thick.

A crane is being used to remove and lift the heavy materials to the top of the dome, and the new oculus will be in place by the end of the year, Amster said.

Adding to the status of the iconic dome on the MIT campus over the years have been a series of clever pranks in which large objects will mysteriously appear atop the dome, including a 2003 prank in which “hackers” placed a wood and canvass plane on the dome for the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight in North Carolina.

Amster said MIT will take steps to ensure no future hijinks will damage the new skylight. He said a clear, impact-resistant material will be installed atop the dome once the new oculus is in place.

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