During the Civil War years, Governor Samuel Kirkwood believed there was a great need for our State University to have an astronomical observatory. The first one was built in 1874 – a small brick building located at the north end of Clinton Street – where the President’s Home now stands. In 1891, a second observatory was erected on the SUI Red Brick Campus, located nearer the newly-built Science Hall, directly west of where the Dental Building would be placed in 1894. The observatory remained there until 1923, when brought down to make room for the new University Hall (Jessup).
Location: Built in 1891, the University’s second observatory was located on the far north side of University Square, directly west of where the Dental Building would be constructed in 1894.
In the early 1860’s, in the midst of the great Civil War, Governor Samuel Kirkwood was looking far beyond the ravages of war and seeing a State University that would measure up with the best colleges back east. In his Second Biennial Address to State of Iowa legislators gathered in Des Moines, Kirkwood dreamed about this fledgling school back in Iowa City and what it could actually become. In that address he specifically requested funding for a chemical laboratory, additional lecture rooms that would host studies in philosophy, and an astronomical observatory. In his own words…
There are no suitable rooms for the Chemical Laboratory . . . This, to our agricultural State, is, perhaps the most important department of our University. Chemistry is becoming daily a more liberal contributor to agricultural knowledge and success; and the advancement of chemical science in our State, through the State University, should be especially encouraged . . . Our University will not be complete until it shall have an Astronomical Observatory connected with it. This has already become a prominent feature of the University of Michigan, and the demands of our more western location will soon require it of us. A building may be erected to answer all these purposes at much less cost than to provide for them separately.
Acting on Governor Kirkwood’s proposal, the Board recommended that the Legislature make an appropriation of up to $25,000 for the erection of such a building – on University Square. That building – North Hall (above)- was built in 1865, but sadly, Kirkwood’s hope of it including a tower for an observatory was determined, by the architects, to not be feasible.
In the meantime, after North Hall was built, Professor Gustavus Hinrichs took it upon himself to construct a small observatory atop his own home at 9 East Market Street (see map & pic above). Indeed, this was a nice effort by the determined professor of chemistry – whose motto was ‘Be Quiet – Be Careful – Be Certain’ – but Hinrich’s makeshift site, while great at measuring weather conditions, did have one little problem. No telescope! Read more here.
Finally, in 1874, the Board approved $4,600 for the erection of a separate observatory – a small brick building constructed at the north end of Clinton Street (see map above) – the spot now occupied by the President’s Home (1909). Katherine Bates, author of an insightful look at the earliest facilities of the University, writes in 1949 about the beginnings of this first observatory…
The Board approved Professor Leonard’s lengthy proposal on June 29, 1874, and within two weeks, work was already in progress. Bates continues…
The observatory was (given) charge (to) Mr. I. D. Wolfe, a graduate of the science and engineering departments of the University. The building was open for student inspection every Saturday night, and Mr. Wolfe served as guide, explaining the intricacies of the observatory instruments and answering any questions the students might raise.
The Great Comet of 1874. Historical illustration (above left) of the public observing Coggia’s Comet from Paris, France. This comet was discovered on April 17, 1874 by French astronomer Jerome Eugene Coggia. It became visible to the naked eye in June, with a large and bright tail. It reached perihelion on July 9th. It had faded from view in the northern hemisphere by July 23, with the final observation made in October from Argentina.
In June of 1874, The University Reporter printed the following story…
“The foundations of the Astronomical Observatory will soon be laid. Work has already been commenced and ere many moons the students of the Iowa State University will view the starry dome through one of the finest telescopes, from one of the best observatories in the North West. Prof. Leonard is superintending the work. He is enthusiastic to have it finished in time to see the next if not the present comet.“
Though records don’t exist, it’s our guess that the observatory didn’t make it in time to view the Great Coggia Comet of 1874 – since it faded in late July. But as The Reporter states – SUI was now well prepared for the next big one – which, according to history, included four massive comet displays in the 1880’s!
By 1891, the University decided to bring everything closer in to the Red Brick campus, so with the new Science Building (1884) nearby, construction began on a new observatory located directly on University Square – replacing the smaller one on North Clinton Street.
This small observatory, along with the even smaller Weights & Measures building, located directly west of North Hall, provided homes for intricate parts of the science curriculum that was quickly developing at SUI.
Are the reports of Observatory #2‘s demise greatly exaggerated? One unconfirmed story states that the little brick building was partially knocked off its foundation by a runaway truck in 1916 – but SUI campus maps show the facility still in use into 1923!
But, in truth, the future of the observatory was doomed as early as 1900, when President George MacLean rolled out his ‘New University‘ plan – a strategy designed to eventually remove the older and smaller buildings surrounding Old Capitol.
In the early1920’s, a renovation of Old Capitol began, opening up a new entry way on the west side of the building and adding the stately portico and columns we see today. Landscaping the west portion of University Square was a huge priority and to make room for the fourth and final new building in the eventual Pentacrest – Observatory #2 was removed. University Hall, as it was called then, was completed by 1924 and remains as Jessup Hall today (see pics below).
In an Old Gold article by David McCartney, we find more details about how the study of astronomy that President Kirkwood was so passionate about in the 1860’s not only didn’t die when the Observatory was demolished in 1923, but actually excelled…
For the (second) time, 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 (see pic below), where it remained until about 1965, when an observatory was constructed near Hills, south of Iowa City.
Dr. James Van Allen – Iowa’s Space Pioneer – Time Magazine May 4, 1959. Click here to read more. McCartney’s article continues…
The opening of Van Allen Hall in the 1960s ensured additional sky-watching opportunities from campus. The recent revamping (2014) of the UI Department of Physics and Astronomy’s observatory includes the installation of a new dome and telescope atop Van Allen Hall (see pic above), 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.
So, here’s to SUI’s Red-Brick Campus and its Eye To The Sky – Observatory #2 . . . gone, but never forgotten.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.