University of Illinois

11 07 2011

[Entry 2 of 3 on the observatory at UIUC; read Entry 1 here.]

The University of Illinois Observatory held an impromptu open house last weekend, so we dragged a friend to campus so she could experience some sky-watching. She seemed genuinely thrilled by both the view of Saturn through the 12″ refractor and the view of the moon through a light bucket (1o” Dobsonian reflector) the UIAS had set up on the lawn to the west of the observatory. UIAS is a friendly group, and I highly recommend joining their listserv if you live in the area so you receive announcements about their open houses.

I’ve already written quite a bit about the building, but I was struck anew by the architecture while walking around the first floor. More specifically, I was struck by the pendentives, those transitional elements that let builders set a round dome on a square (or in this case, octagonal) building. In European building traditions, pendentives are usually covered with plaster so the surface is smooth. The pendentives in the observatory at UIUC are a little more utilitarian, however:

Brick pendentives

Pendentives, University of Illinois Observatory, July 2011. Photo credit: JR

The pendentives here are exposed brick, painted but not disguised with plaster. (As an aside, the photo above also shows an antique 6″ equatorial refractor.) Before going upstairs, I thought to myself, “This is a very honest building.” The repressed brick out of which the walls and telescope were built is readily apparent. The warm temperature inside also was fairly honest. During the cooler evening hours, the masonry off-puts the heat it stored during the day, which would be a good thing if you were trying to heat the place, but is actually a bad thing because the radiation causes turbulence just when you want to start using the telescope.

At any rate, from the inside, the observatory seems like an honest building. It’s not quite as honest from the outside, however. Well, the observatory’s octagonal shape remains quite obvious, even though the east side of the building has been covered up by later additions:

Dome and balcony

Northeast facade, University of Illinois Observatory, July 2011. Photo credit: JR

Most of the exterior materials are constructionally transparent. The walls are made of brick, the pilasters are made of brick, the door and window headers are made of limestone. The balcony railing is painted wood, the dome roof adequately expresses the shape of the interior of the dome. On the other hand, the brackets under the lip of the dome are completely decorative, having no real role in the support of the roof structure. Moreover, they’re not even wood, but sheet metal, crimped and folded into the curves.

Brackets

Closer view of brackets, University of Illinois Observatory, July 2011. Photo credit: JR

Brackets close up

Even closer view of brackets, University of Illinois Observatory, July 2011. Photo credit: JR

If you look closely at the brackets on the far left and right (click on the photo to enlarge), you can see they’re starting to pull apart. So, this is an interesting, but dishonest building, if you buy into the Modernist myth of materials necessarily expressing their function (which I only do on every other Friday). It’s quite different from it’s Big Ten counterpart, Kirkwood Observatory at Indiana University, despite the fact both observatories house 12″ refracting telescopes. One of the IUAS hosts offered to give me a tour of the building during daylight hours, so expect an entry discussing the instruments closer to the beginning of fall semester.





University of Illinois

4 06 2011
Observatory, Small Observatory, and Auditorium, University of Illinois.

Observatory, Small Observatory, and Auditorium, University of Illinois. Photo credit: University of Illinois Archives.

If you’ve been looking for the online version of the excellent National Historic Landmark Theme Study on Astronomy and Astrophysics by the National Parks Service, you should know that most of the NPS links to the title page are broken. You can find the portal to the e-book at http://www.nps.gov/history/history/online_books/butowsky5/astro.htm (not at /butowsky/index.htm as the failed links would have you believe). The book is rather dated (1989), and the information included in it is most comprehensive for the observatories and instruments that have been nominated for National Historic Landmark status, but even the briefer entries are useful for dates and locations. I was happy to read the nomination entry for the observatory of my alma mater, designed by architect Charles A. Gunn in 1896.

University of Illinois Observatory.

University of Illinois Observatory. Photo credit: University of Illinois Archives.

It took me a bit of effort to track down Mr. Gunn, but according to the 1914 Alumni Record of University of Illinois, he was born in Chicago in 1870. He appears to have been a very well-rounded individual:  at university, he was in Adelphic, Sigma Chi, and Glee Club. He was Captain of his class baseball team, played varsity baseball, held the state and conference record for the ball throw, as well as the Hop, Step, and Jump, and broke the university record for the running broad jump in 1890.

Charles A. Gunn, 1913 Alumni Record, University of Illinois.

Charles A. Gunn, Entry from 1913 Alumni Record, University of Illinois.

It would seem Gunn designed the observatory as one of his last projects in Illinois, as he was recorded as working in New York between 1897 and 1903 (first as Assistant Architect at Columbia University, second as a solo act).

Charles Gunn, Semi-Centennial Alumni Record of University of Illinois, 1918.

Charles Gunn, Entry from Semi-Centennial Alumni Record of University of Illinois, 1918.

I’m not quite sure when Mr. Gunn got religion, but two of his children died young, in 1905 and 1907, so maybe he sought solace in the church after those events. At any rate, The Eighty-Second Annual Report of the Board of Foreign Missionaries of the Presbyterian Church of the USA (1919) notes that Mr. and Mrs. Gunn had returned to the Manila Station on the island of Luzon with the Philippine Mission after furlough.

Eighty-second Annual Report, Foreign Missions, Presbyterian Church USA.

Eighty-second Annual Report, Foreign Missions, Presbyterian Church USA.

Eighty-Second Annual Report, Presbyterian Church USA.

Eighty-Second Annual Report, Presbyterian Church USA.

But when did the Gunn family returned to mainland U.S.? Mr. Gunn continued to work in the Philippines, South China and Hainan from 1916 to 1921, after which point he worked in Shanghai until 1939 (see, for instance, the Missions Building, 169 Yuanmingyuan Road). He made the national U.S. press when hostilities between China and Japan came to a head in 1937 (“Daughter Fears for Parents in Peiping Mission,” Chicago Daily Tribune, July 31, 1937; “Charles A. Gunn.” New York Times, Oct. 20, 1945), but I haven’t been able find any trace of him after that year. It would seem, however, that the observatory was a one-off, and his true calling was in the architecture of religion, not science.

University of Illinois Observatory.

University of Illinois Observatory. Photo credit: University of Illinois Archives.

For more information on the observatory, including plans to restore the space, check out the Facebook group, Friends of the University of Illinois Observatory (thanks, Mike!).