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It’s no prank, MIT is installing a new skylight on “Great Dome”

The skylight of MIT’s Great Dome is being restored to its pre-WWII appearance. It was blacked out to prevent air strikes in the war when MIT was involved in radar research.

Brock Parker

The skylight of MIT’s Great Dome is being restored to its pre-WWII appearance. It was blacked out to prevent air strikes in the war when MIT was involved in radar research.

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

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

In 1942, as research was under­way 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 institute 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 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 about 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. It will have several hundred amethyst-­colored glass blocks that will be 2-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 high profile of the iconic dome on the MIT campus over the years have been a series of clever pranks in which large objects would mysteriously appear atop the dome, including a 2003 prank in which hackers placed a wood and canvas 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 that no future high jinks damage the new skylight. He said a clear, impact-
resistant material will be ­installed atop the dome when the new oculus is in place.

Brock Parker can be reached at brock.globe@gmail.com

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