UI archivist takes a look back on the UI’s history of looking up

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Monday, September 15, 2014

(Editor’s note: The Old Gold series provides a look at University of Iowa history and tradition through materials housed in University Archives, Department of Special Collections.)

The recent revamping of the UI Department of Physics and Astronomy’s observatory includes the installation of a new dome and telescope atop Van Allen Hall, once again allowing students to view the night sky from downtown Iowa City. A grant from the Roy J. Carver Trust made the project possible.

No longer do students have to travel to the Palisades-Dows Observatory near Mount Vernon or rely upon a remote-controlled telescope in Arizona. Old Gold, who glances upward occasionally, is excited about the prospect of public viewings in the future.

Two people working inside a campus observatory
Inside the astronomy observatory on the roof of Physics Building (now MacLean Hall), 1930s.

As we all know, Old Gold likes to look back as well as look up. So, naturally, he pulled out the ‘Observatories’ file in the University Archives to learn more about earlier stargazing enablers on our campus.

As it turns out, observatories have been part of the campus landscape for a long time. During the 1880s—an exact date is difficult to pin down—professor Gustavus Hinrichs constructed an observation point at 9 East Market St., near the intersection with what had been North Capitol Street. The site had no telescope, however. A brick observatory equipped for the first time with a telescope was constructed at the north end of Clinton Street, but by the 1890s it had fallen into disrepair and was repurposed, according to the Feb. 23, 1895, Vidette-Reporter:

“The structure is unsafe enough as it is, for such a valuable museum without having a tinder-box in the basement. Yet the location was a convenient one. … Accordingly some changes were made and the [university] carpenters this week moved in.”

Exterior photo of the MacLean Hall rooftop observatory
An exterior view of the observatory at MacLean Hall in 1952.

While the carpenters settled into new quarters in the former Clinton Street observatory, a replacement observatory was constructed on the Pentacrest, approximately where the north side of Jessup Hall is today. For the third time, however, the university’s observatory was marked for demolition and assigned a new home. When the new Physics Building (now MacLean Hall) was completed about 1910, an observatory dome was eventually placed atop it, where it remained until about 1965, when an observatory was constructed near Hills, south of Iowa City. The opening of Van Allen Hall in the 1960s ensured additional sky-watching opportunities from campus.

Katherine Bates’ master’s thesis, “History of the State University of Iowa: Aspects of the Physical Structure,” written in 1949, discusses the early campus observatories—those without telescopes as well as those so equipped.

Read more Old Gold columns on Iowa Now.