What’s in the stars for McCormick Observatory?
Photo by Dan Addison
|There are three more opportunities to visit the McCormick Observatory during public nights this semester: Nov. 18, Dec. 2 and 16. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the events include a lecture and the opportunity to
view the stars or planets through the telescope. Each evening has a different subject or theme depending
on what is visible in the night sky during that period. For more information, call 924-7494 or visit
By Fariss Samarrai
Few in the U.Va. community know the venerable history of McCormick Observatory. It was dedicated on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13, 1885, thanks to the funding and ambition of Leander McCormick, heir to the Cyrus McCormick mechanical reaper fortune. The observatory’s telescope, with its 26 1/4-inch lens, was the second largest in the world and the largest in the United States, just surpassing the 26-inch telescope at the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. The building of the observatory fulfilled Jefferson’s original plans for the University, which included an outline for construction of an astronomical observatory.
Now the observatory is one of the oldest operating observatories in the world. Late last year the facility was named to the National Register of Historic Places, and is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register. The Office of the University Architect recently rated the observatory as an essential University building, just below the Rotunda and the Lawn in importance to the University’s heritage. A great deal of outstanding research was conducted with the telescope during much of its history. The University’s astronomy department used the telescope to build its early reputation in astrometry, the science of measuring distances between stars, and therefore the size of the universe.
Astronomy assistant professor Ed Murphy is pushing an effort to renovate and revitalize the 120-year-old observatory. His effort has been jump-started by two recent donations, potentially totaling $250,000. Murphy, who oversees the education programs at the observatory, is working with University development officers, alumni and administrators on a plan to return the observatory to its original condition and to establish a public science center there.
Murphy’s proposal calls for Alden House, the old observatory director’s house, built in 1883 next to the observatory, to be fully restored and used as a science outreach center for all of the University’s science departments. It would include a museum and education center for school children and the general public. It also would highlight the research being conducted at the University.
“This would enhance the already popular public programs we hold at the observatory,” Murphy said. About 4,000 people visit McCormick Observatory each year, at least half of them children and young adults on school tours. Murphy hopes to eventually bring that number up to 10,000.
“Our plans for McCormick Observatory and Alden House fit in perfectly with the recommendations of the 2020 commission for public service and outreach,” Murphy said.
Though the telescope now is rarely used for research, it is a great teaching tool for astronomy students, and for fascinating the public with a picture-perfect view of the stars. “The telescope is still as good as it’s ever been,” Murphy said. “It has limitations because of its small size by today’s standards and because of light pollution in this region, but it’s a great instrument for introducing people to astronomy.”
The restoration of Alden House and McCormick Observatory will include construction of ramps and rails for handicapped accessibility, removal of unnecessary mechanical equipment added to the telescope in the 1960s, and repairing rotted and damaged structures. In recent years Alden House has served as a storage facility and has fallen into disrepair.
“The University is providing a tremendous amount of support for this proposal, with particular interest from the Office of the Vice President and Provost, the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and from University development officers,” Murphy said.
Recently, alumnus Robert Capon and wife Rose Capon donated $20,000 for the renovation of the telescope. The Perry Foundation, a charitable organization that supports schools and communities, has offered a $230,000 grant for restoration of the facility and for establishment of the science center — with the stipulation that the University fully commit to completing the project and raising an additional $305,000 by December 2006. Murphy said the full capital cost of the project, as he envisions it, would be about $3 million with renovations to the observatory, Alden House and grounds occurring in phases. Additional funding will be raised to create an endowment to fund the work of the educators at the outreach center.
Murphy is a walking encyclopedia of the history of the observatory. During the twice-monthly open houses and twice-monthly visits by school kids he enthusiastically tells the storied history of the observatory.