Our Iowa Heritage: The Observatory.

Observatory #2: The University’s Eye to the Sky.

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 Red Brick campus, located nearer the newly-built Science Hall, directly west of where the Dental Building would be placed in 1894. The building remained there until 1923, when brought down to make room for the new University (Jessup) Hall.

The Red Brick Campus: Building #9 – 1891 – 1923.

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.

Governor Kirkwood Keeping Up With the Big Boys of Michigan.

Jane and Samuel Kirkwood – Governor of Iowa 1860-1864, 1876-1877.

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 the University Square.

North Hall

That building, North Hall, opened 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, back in Iowa City, Professor Gustavus Hinrichs took it upon himself to construct a small observation point at 9 East Market Street, near the intersection with what had been North Capitol Street. But Hinrich’s site had no telescope!

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, the spot now occupied by the President’s Home (1906). 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 requested Professor Leonard to submit plans for the observatory and lecture rooms to the architect, R. S. Finkbine, and to obtain an estimate of the cost of erecting such a building:

Of all these really pressing wants, the physical observatory is the most needful to the University, and when properly constructed and managed will prove the most useful to the State at large; at the same time it can be erected in a substantial manner and of sufficient dimensions for a comparatively small amount. For these reasons I would most earnestly urge the immediate construction of such an observatory. That a physical observatory is required at a University is apparent; for physics . . . has always constituted an essential part in the curriculum of every University, and it is manifestly impossible to practically instruct in this science without giving the students an opportunity to observe the facts of nature in regard to light, heat, electricity and magnetism . . . In the library of this observatory a complete record of all meteorological observations made in the State, should be kept, and with the standard instruments of this observatory all meteorological instruments used throughout Iowa should be carefully compared, so that the results obtained in our State will be truly reliable, and furnish data by which to determine the effect of human actions on the climate . . . That the sum required for this observatory is not excessive is apparent from the estimates for the same reaching $6500 only. The detailed drawings of the physical observatory on which this estimate is based, represent a tower, 21 feet square, four stories high, each of 15 feet, with readily accessible, nearly flat roof. Each story of the building to be divided by a north and south wall into a (west) staircase, six feet wide, and an (east) room, 14 by 21 feet. The ground floor to be used as magnetic observatory; the first story or optical observatory and laboratory; the second story for the working of the self­ registering instruments or meteorography and the keeping of the record of observations, the third story for the meteorological observatory proper, while finally on the roof are exposed the wind vane, anemometer, rain and snow gauges, radiation thermometers, and kindred instruments.”

From an 1899 album belonging to a Pharmacy graduate, John M. Lindley (class of 1889, state senator 1915-19) bears the following inscription: “Old Observatory at head of Clinton Street, over-looking the Iowa River. Here we looked thro the telescope at the rings of Saturn.”

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.

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.

The Great Comet of 1874 from Paris. Historical illustration of the public observing Coggia’s Comet (C/1874 H1) from Paris, France. This comet was discovered on 17 April 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 9 July. It had faded from view in the northern hemisphere by 23 July, with the final observation made in October from Argentina.

1891 – Moving Closer to The Red Brick Campus.

By 1891, the University decided to bring everything closer to the Red Brick campus, so with the new Science Building (Calvin Hall) nearby, construction began on a new observatory located directly on University Square, replacing the older one on Clinton Street.

Circa 1905 – the First Observatory on Clinton St. had fallen into dis-repair and was used as the carpenters’ shop before being torn down prior to the President’s Home being constructed in 1909.
Circa 1891 – the Second Observatory – looking northeast prior to Science Hall (Calvin Hall) being relocated across Jefferson St (1905) and prior to Dental Building being constructed (1894).
Circa 1910 – Looking south from Science Hall over University Square (The west wing of the Dental Building is on the left).
Circa 1910 – Looking north after Science Hall (Calvin Hall) had been relocated (1905).

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 S.U.I.

So. . . What Stands on this Spot Today?

When President George MacLean rolled out his “New University” plan at the turn of the century, a big part of that strategy meant removing many of the older (and smaller) buildings surrounding Old Capitol, replacing them with four stately structures that made the architectural statement that Iowa was moving into the new century with eyes wide open.

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 fifth building in the eventual Pentacrest (Jessup Hall), the Observatory was removed. University Hall, as it was called then, was completed by 1924 and remains there today.

One unconfirmed report says that the Observatory was partially knocked off its foundation by a runaway truck in 1916, but SUI campus maps show the building still in use into 1923.

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, 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.

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

The opening of Van Allen Hall in the 1960s ensured additional sky-watching opportunities from campus.

Dr. James Van Allen – Iowa’s Space Pioneer – Time Magazine May 4, 1959.

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, 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 the Red-Brick campus’ Observatory . . . gone, but never forgotten.


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

History of the State University of Iowa: Aspects of the Physical Structure, Katherine V. Bates, MA (Master of Arts) thesis, State University of Iowa, 1949, pp 19, 104-105, 116-120

University of Iowa Libraries: Iowa Digital Library website

Old Gold: Studying the cosmos from campus, David McCartney, Sept.15, 2014 Iowa Now website

A Pictorial History of the University of Iowa: An Expanded Edition, John C. Gerber, University of Iowa Press, 2005, p 40


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