The Detroit Observatory was built in 1854, and was the first scientific research facility at the University of Michigan and the oldest observatory of its type in the nation. It was designated a Michigan State Historic Site in 1958 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Henry Philip Tappan was inaugurated as the president of the University of Michigan in December 1852, and in his inaugural speech, appealed to the citizens of Michigan to support research and laboratory space at the University. Immediately afterward, Tappan was approached by Detroit businessman (and former Michigan Attorney General) Henry N. Walker, who offered assistance. The men agreed upon raising funds for an observatory, and Walker spearheaded the fundraising drive. It didn't take long to rain the $22,000 for the building and its instruments. Notable contributors include Lewis Cass, Henry Porter Baldwin, Walker himself, and Senator Zachariah Chandler.
By 1853, land was obtained for the building site and George Bird was hired to superintend the construction. Tappan selected Richard Harrison Bull, one of his former students turned professor at New York University, to design the building. In addition to teaching civil engineering, Bull was also an amateur astronomer. The building was completed in 1854 and named the Detroit Observatory, in honor of the donations of the citizens of Detroit that made it possible. The Detroit Observatory is a two-story hip roof rectangular frame structure, 33 ft on a side, flanked by two one-story wings, each 19 ft by 29 ft. The design is typical of observatories built in the 19th century. The structure is constructed of solid brick clad with stucco painted to resemble granite blocks. It is capped with a large revolving dome built of wood and canvas, 21 ft in diameter. A small portico covers the front entrance.
The building housed a 12⅝-inch (32 cm) Henry Fitz, Jr. refracting telescope in the central area. The Fitz was the third largest telescope in the world when it was installed in 1857. A 6-inch (15 cm) Pistor & Martins meridian circle was installed in the east wing, while the west wing served as a library and office space for the director.
In 1890, the dome rotation mechanisms were revamped. In 1908, additions were made that included a second dome and space for a new 37+1/2 in reflecting telescope. The director's residence was demolished in 1954 to make way for the expansion of nearby Couzens Hall; the 1908 addition was demolished in 1976.
The astronomy department moved from the building in 1963, and the Detroit Observatory was used first as a library, then as a storeroom. It soon became derelict, and in the 1970s was threatened with complete demolition. However, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, and restored in 1997-98. In 2005, the Detroit Observatory became a division of the Bentley Historical Library.
The function of the Detroit Observatory on campus was taken over by the Angell Hall Observatory which was completed much later. The observatories of the University of Michigan include the Detroit Observatory (1854), the Angell Hall Observatory (1927), the Lamont-Hussey Observatory (South Africa, 1928) and the McMath-Hulbert Observatory (Lake Angelus, MI, 1930).
Cover image by Wystan is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0. Information courtesy of Wikipedia.