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11 stellar observatories and planetariums in the U.S.

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Architecture built for the stars

The exterior of the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. There are two domed towers sitting on a hillside. There is a sunset in the sky.
Located 56 miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona, Kitt Peak National Observatory stands tall at sunset.
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Planetariums and observatories host millions of people each year, showcasing everything from asteroids and stars to planets and far-flung universes. Yet these impressive buildings don’t always take top billing in architecture roundups, whether it’s because they fly under the radar or because they aren’t always designed by big-name architects like other museums.

Planetariums and observatories are worth a second glance, however, if only because they do important research and often serve as educational centers for budding astronomers. Their architecture might surprise you; while there are plenty of sparkling domes on this list, we’ve also featured historic structures and new takes on the traditional observatory.

Here are eleven architecturally interesting planetariums and observatories in the United States that are sure to get you looking skyward.

Gemma Observatory in New Hampshire

The exterior of Gemma Observatory in New Hampshire. The building structure is geometric with multiple windows.
The Gemma Observatory in Southern New Hampshire.
Courtesy of The American Architecture Awards

Designed by Anmahian Winton Architects, this private observatory in New Hampshire rejects the traditional dome in favor of an unconventional geometric shape that is meant to mimic the rocky outcroppings that surround the structure.

Inside, the building is lined with fir plywood to create a warm and inviting refuge in which to appreciate the stars. A faceted turret holds the observatory’s primary viewing platform, and the building also boasts an exterior observatory deck in the rear.

Adler Planetarium in Chicago

The exterior of the Adler Planetarium building in Chicago. The top is domed and there are pyramid shaped structures on both sides of the building.
The Adler Planetarium opened in 1930 as the first planetarium in the western hemisphere.
Courtesy of the Adler Planetarium

Opened in 1930 as the first planetarium in the western hemisphere, the Adler Planetarium was built as “a classroom under the heavens” for popular astronomy education. The Art Deco structure has a stony, pink and grey exterior, few windows, and is designed as a 12-sided shape topped with a dome.

Today, the structure--which some liken to a space ship—houses three different theaters, special exhibits, and an observatory. It’s also located on the banks of Lake Michigan, boasts a top-notch view of the Chicago skyline, and was one of the best places in the city to see the 2017 eclipse.

Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin

The exterior of the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin. There is a main building with an arched entryway attached to an observatory with a domed roof.
The Yerkes Observatory on the campus of the University of Chicago in Williams Bay, Wisconsin.
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Affiliated with the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University of Chicago, the Yerkes Observatory was established in 1897 on Geneva Lake in Williams Bay, Wisconsin.

The observatory houses a 40” single lens refracting telescope and sits on a 77-acre park that was designed in part by John Olmsted, brother of the famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The historic building is notable for its many arches and how the design incorporated both a domed observatory and a space for education and events.

Hayden Planetarium in New York City

The exterior of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. The building has glass walls. There is a large blue globe and other planetary objects on display in the building. The building has an arched green brick base.
The Hayden Planetarium in the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City.
Alan Schein Photography/Getty Images

Operating out of the Department of Astrophysics at the American Museum of Natural History, the new Hayden Planetarium sits in the stunning Rose Center for Earth and Space building. The previous planetarium was closed and demolished in 1997, and in its place sits a 2,000 ton sphere that contains the planetarium.

The 87-foot-diameter sphere is housed within a 95-foot-high cube of suspended glass, creating what some have called a “cosmic cathedral.” Two different theaters take visitors on virtual journeys, and the planetarium is also available to rent as an event space.

Burke Baker Planetarium at The Houston Museum of Natural Science

The exterior of the Burke Baker Planetarium at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. The roof is painted green and dome shaped. There are trees and grass in front.
Burke Baker Planetarium at The Houston Museum of Natural Science, Houston, Texas.
UIG via Getty Images

Located inside the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Burke Baker Planetarium boasts Digistar 6—one of the most advanced simulators in the world. The domed exterior isn’t just pretty, it also allows visitors to get lost in high-resolution solar videos.

Opened in 1964, millions of guests have flown through the universe, navigated asteroid fields, and explored planetary surfaces. The dome theater is also used to train NASA Space Shuttle astronauts in identifying starfields.

Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii

The exterior of the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii. The main building has a dome shaped roof and a white facade. In the distance on the edge of a cliffside is another dome shaped structure.
The telescopes high on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
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Sitting at 13,796 feet in Hawaii, the white and silver Mauna Kea Observatory looks like what you’d expect from the world’s largest observatory for optical, infrared, and submillimeter astronomy.

The complex contains 13 high-tech working telescopes near the summit of the dormant volcano, and more major telescopes are now located on Mauna Kea than any other single mountain peak.

Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles

The exterior of the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles. The building facade is white and there are multiple dome shaped structures on the roof. In the background is the city skyline of Los Angeles.
The LA skyline behind the Griffith Park Observatory.
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A well-known tourist destination in Southern California and the most-visited public observatory in the world, the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles offers visitors free admission to its building and grounds.

The building includes the Samuel Oschin Planetarium, an observatory, and an exhibition space. It’s a mishmash of grand and monument styles constructed using concrete, steel, and copper domes. Head over here for more on LA’s “most recognizable and beloved building.”

Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona

The exterior of the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. There are two white dome shaped structures. Each structure is positioned at the edge of a cliff. There is a sunset in the sky.
An observatory near Tucson, Arizona at sunset.
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Located 56 miles southwest of Tucson, Arizona, Kitt Peak National Observatory was selected in 1958 as a site for a national observatory after a 3-year survey that included 150 mountain ranges across the U.S.

The observatory offers daily tours that show the buildings and telescopes, while nighttime tours let people view the night sky through a 16” telescope.

McDonald Observatory in Texas

The exterior of McDonald Observatory in Texas. The roof is dome shaped with white structural supports.
McDonald Observatory in Texas.
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Set in the mountains of West Texas, 450 miles west of its research and administrative home at the University of Texas at Austin, McDonald Observatory boasts some of the darkest skies in the continental U.S.

Those skies let the observatory’s gleaming dome shine, and the observatory welcomes approximately 60,000 visitors each year to star parties and exhibits.

Mount Graham International Observatory in Arizona

The exterior of Mount Graham International Observatory in Arizona. The facade is gray and there is a large binocular telescope that can be seen inside the building.
A large binocular telescope located in south eastern Arizona.
Joe McNally/Getty Images

Originally erected in Milan, Italy, before being shipped to Arizona in 2002, the large binocular telescope at the Mt. Graham International Observatory can deliver images ten times sharper than the Hubble Space Telescope.

It’s the world’s most powerful telescope, and public visits are available by advance reservation from May through October.

Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco

The exterior of the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco. The roof has multiple domes which have plants growing on their surface. In the front of the building are trees and plants.
The green roof of the Morrison Planetarium in San Francisco.
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Located inside the California Academy of Sciences—one of our favorite destinations for kids in San Francisco—the 75-foot domed Morrison Planetarium is the largest all-digital planetarium in the world.

While the architecture of the California Academy of Sciences building doesn’t look like other planetariums and observatories, it’s still an important structure. Architect Renzo Piano built a 2.5-acre “living roof” for this green building that uses sustainable materials and boasts two domes that cover the planetarium and the rain forest exhibition.