The Holmdel Horn, a Cosmic Shrine in New Jersey, Stays Put

A radio telescope that discovered evidence of the Big Bang in 1964, revolutionizing the study of the universe, will remain in its original place on Crawford Hill in Holmdel, N.J, town officials announced last week.

Rakesh Antala, a real estate developer, had proposed building a senior housing center on the site, a plan that drew opposition from residents and far-flung astronomy buffs. But an agreement between town officials and Mr. Antala seemed to augur the end of the cosmic controversy.

The Holmdel Horn Antenna, as it is known, was built in 1959 by AT&T Bell Laboratories, the renowned research arm of the phone company, for an experiment called Project Echo that relayed messages by bouncing microwaves off giant aluminized balloons.

In 1964, two young astronomers, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, found themselves plagued by an omnidirectional hiss as they surveyed the night sky for their own research. The static was eventually identified as leftover heat from the Big Bang. Its existence provided compelling evidence that the universe had started with a tremendous explosion; ever since, astrophysicists have been studying this radiation for clues to how and why the Big Bang happened.

Dr. Penzias and Dr. Wilson won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1978, and the Holmdel antenna was designated as a National Historic Landmark.

But the location of the horn has been in dispute recently. An odyssey of ownership began in 1984, after AT&T was broken into the so-called Baby Bells. Bell Labs eventually became Lucent and then Alcatel-Lucent, which was bought by Nokia.

Dr. Wilson lives a few blocks from the antenna and still has the keys to the telescope.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

In 2020, Nokia sold its last remaining piece of the former Bell Labs complex in Holmdel — 43 acres comprising Crawford Hill, including the antenna — to Crawford Hill Holdings L.L.C., headed by Mr. Antala, a former Bell Labs administrator and serial entrepreneur.

A coalition of conservation and community groups opposed the development over concerns that it could result in the antenna being moved to another part of the hill or elsewhere altogether. It cited the need to preserve open space and protect the antenna.

Coalition members plastered the town of Holmdel with “Save the Horn Antenna” signs and circulated a petition urging the preservation of the antenna and its setting, eventually collecting 8,000 signatures from 49 states and 60 countries.

Dr. Wilson, who lives in Holmdel, weighed in on the controversy in a recent interview.

“I’d like it to stay where it is,” he said, noting that the antenna would require protection from vandals and storms. “And I think the idea of making it into a park is a good one.”

Holmdel residents and citizen groups banded together to keep the famous radio antenna where it is.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

In August, the Holmdel Township Committee took the first steps toward acquiring at least part of the hill, including the antenna, citing “a ground swelling of public support for preservation of the Crawford Hill property.”

According to a memorandum of understanding signed on Oct. 12, the town will pay $5.5 million for 35 acres, including the ground the telescope sits on, leaving the rest for Mr. Antala to develop. The town wants to make its portion of the hill into a park, perhaps to include a visitor center.

“This breakthrough will allow future generations to observe the Horn Antenna, a National Historic Landmark located within Holmdel, as well as the impressive views that can be observed from the highest point in Monmouth County, all as part of a sprawling, 35-acre public park,” Mayor Domenico Luccarelli of Holmdel said in a statement to Patch, a local online newsletter.

In a separate statement, Mr. Antala said: “As in all negotiated settlements, no one gets entirely what they want. But as we maintained from the start of the process, the Horn Antenna would be preserved on-site and a significant portion of the property would remain open space — and that’s exactly what was agreed to with the town.”

Reached after the announcement by email, Mr. Antala said, “We are glad that both parties are working to resolve the matter, which is moving in the right direction.”

The coalition of groups that had opposed Mr. Antala’s plan — Citizens for Informed Land Use, Preserve Holmdel and Friends of Holmdel Open Space — commended the agreement but said in a statement that they would stay vigilant: “This recent action by the Holmdel Township Committee highlights the progress that can be achieved when local governments are willing to listen to and work with residents.”

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