Anyone who has spent time on the Hill has most likely noticed the white dome peaking out between the Alice Lloyd and Couzens Residence Halls. However, few probably know they are looking at the first ever astronomical observatory in Michigan.

The Detroit Observatory, completed in 1854, was the center of University President Henry Philip Tappan’s efforts to transform the University into one of the country’s original research universities. According to the website of the University Lowbrow Astronomers, a student organization comprised of about 90 amateur astronomers, Tappan had “a vision of the University that included not only the traditional classical course but also a scientific course,” and believed astronomy to be an integral part of this curriculum.

The observatory was named in honor of a group of Detroit businessmen, who proved to be the most generous donors once fundraising efforts began. According to Karen Wight, program coordinator for the Detroit Observatory, the major motivation behind the businessmen’s donation was their need for an accurate time standard to govern Michigan train schedules. An observatory would help to create such a standard.

Tappan himself traveled to Europe to purchase the instruments for the observatory. When he returned, however, he was dismayed to find that construction had begun at the corner of Observatory Street and Ann Street, which at the time was a half-mile from Central Campus. Wight said this spot was chosen because the real estate was “cheap and available.” As it turns out, the unconventional location was a good choice, as many other universities who built observatories on their central campuses ended up knocking them down and relocating off-campus, a result of rising costs and demand for centrally located space.

University astronomers continued to use the observatory until the 1950s, when its telescopes were considered old-fashioned and the light pollution from the growing Ann Arbor provided less than ideal viewing conditions. According to Wight, while many minor discoveries had been made at the observatory, “1850s astronomy was not looking to revolutionize the world. They really wanted to verify Newton’s understanding of the universe.”

Today, the building bears the distinction of being the oldest campus structure in its original and unaltered form. It is second only to the President’s House in age. Recently, the observatory has re-opened for observations and public visits, after decades of non-use following a 1998 restoration. The building is open to the public twice a month for tours, as well as for public viewing nights.

According to Wight, these viewings are a “very rare event” and are always tentatively scheduled due to the tendency of clouds to roll in, “which,” she says “in Michigan, they do every 10 minutes or so.”

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