Daniel S. Schanck Observatory, 1865

21 01 2013
Daniel S. Schanck Observatory, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Photo credit: JR

Daniel S. Schanck Observatory, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Photo credit: JR

The Daniel S. Schanck Observatory may be the loneliest building on the Rutgers-New Brunswick campus. Perched at the edge of a parking lot overlooking George Street, the observatory occupies as little space as the university could possibly give to it. Unlike many historical university observatories, Schanck doesn’t have much of a role to play in outreach for the Physics and Astronomy Department: public viewings are conducted at the Robert A. Schommer Astronomical Observatory on the Busch Campus. At one time, the Schanck Observatory looked as if it would be abandoned to the ravages of time and weather, but recently the university commissioned Wu & Associates to restore its exterior. When I arrived on campus last semester (Fall 2012), construction crews were still working on the last details. Today, I noticed some brackets are still unfinished, but the new flashing and downspouts are looking very nice.

Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR


Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Unfinished brackets, Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Finished brackets, Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

The observatory is actually two buildings, the passage between them is at the lower level. It was the smaller of the two buildings that captured my attention when I finally noticed the extremely modest observatory. I’m always fascinated by transit instruments (meridian circles and zenith telescopes) and the architectural accommodations that need to be made for them. The design of Washburn Observatory at University of Wisconsin is elegant, with the doors flanked by double-hung windows. Schanck is slightly more utilitarian, but of course, that was the idea, to shelter the instrument in a way that made it easy to use.

Transit instrument doors, Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Transit instrument doors, Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Transit instrument doors, Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

Transit instrument doors, Daniel S. Schanck Observatory. Photo credit: JR

As you can see, the doors are still in bad repair. One of the panels had a pencil notation on it, though, so I’m hoping that work is just paused until winter is over. I admit, I started using my camera’s automatic settings today because my fingers were too cold to manipulate the shutter speed. Most of my bracket photos are blurry because I was shivering too much to hold the camera steady. If I was a member of the restoration crew, I’d be agitating for a break until spring thaw.

I’m just starting to sort through primary documents for this building, but here’s an excerpt from an oral history I found today. Speaking is Professor Paul L. Leath, Physics and Astronomy, during an interview conducted in April 2011 for the Rutgers Oral History Archives:

SH (Interviewer Sandra Stewart Holyoak):  Since I’ve been at Rutgers the Physics Department is continually in the news in some fashion.

PL:  Yes, it does a lot.  Actually, they’re in the news more these days than in the past because we’ve developed a strong astronomy program.  Astronomy is something that the public is very interested in, so that you find lots of articles on the astronomy.  That’s a very exciting field right, now. This is a golden age of astronomy, with the Hubble space telescope and other major telescopes.  There weren’t astronomers here back in those days.  We had an astronomer back, long before my time, we had one astronomer, but we didn’t have any astronomers when I came.  Well, we had a guy that taught an astronomy course, Maurice Bazin, but we really didn’t have any astronomers.  … In fact, I taught the astronomy course once myself, early on.  … Do you know the Schanck observatory?

PC:  Yes.

SH:  Tell us about that.

PL:  Well, it’s in dire disrepair now.  What happened, more than once, is that people broke into the building and stole parts of the telescope.  … Its final demise was somebody came in and actually stole the objective lens out of the telescope, and it wasn’t worth replacing.  So, it’s just a shell of a building now.  … Well, there’s the frame of the telescope maybe, but we have a new telescope over on the Busch campus, so if you want to see the stars and planets that we used to see, we can do it up on the physics building now.  [Editor’s Note:  The Robert A. Schommer Astronomical Observatory is located on top of the Serin Physics Laboratory on Busch Campus.]

SH:  The Schanck Observatory is at the corner of George and Hamilton.

PL:  Right.  The other thing that’s happened there, is that they have let trees grow up around it, and the other thing that’s happened is that they put street lights along there, and a parking deck across the street, so the light pollution is impossible there.  So, it’s not a good place anymore, but … in its day, in the nineteenth century, it was a very important place.  It was a place where they actually, accurately, measured time.  There is a little building that’s associated with it that has a little slit of a roof going across, and they would measure the transit of the sun precisely, they’d measure the time there.  [Editor’s Note:  The Schanck Observatory was built in 1865 to study astronomy at Rutgers.  Named after its donor, Daniel S. Schanck, it was patterned after the Tower of the Winds in Athens, Greece.]

So long, Bradenton Observatory

1 04 2012

South Florida Museum and Bishop Planetarium

See that small dome just above the entrance to the South Florida Museum? It lives no more. In one of those “here’s something odd” articles that appear in my news feed every so often, I read that the observatory dome has been permanently dismantled, some 10-11 years after  it was damaged during a hurricane. I feel like someone should send an apology to all those happy people shown in the photo accompanying the announcement. Somehow I feel as if we didn’t hold up our end of the bargain.

Observatory. Photo courtesy of South Florida Museum and Bishop Planetarium


Abandoned Observatory, Nizhny Novgorod

23 01 2012

Zimenki Radio Astronomy Station, Радиоастрономическая станция «Зименки», Nizhny Novgorod, Russia

Are we still talking about abandoned observatories? If so, I’ve gathered a few links for the Zimenki Radio Astronomy Station in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia. The Zemenki Station was built for Gorki University in 1949,  near the village of Zimenki on the Volga River. Originally, only a single radio telescope was constructed on the station. Eventually, two dishes were erected at the site.[1]  I’m not quite sure when work at Zimenki came to an end. It was functioning in 1964, when Zimenki and Jodrell Bank participated in several communication exercises.[2] According to the Committee on Radio Astronomy, a single dish was operational as recently as 2002. If it’s still working, I can’t find information about it. A visitor to the site in 2010 indicated that there was only one dish on the station, but none of the radio telescopes was in working order. If anyone can direct me to more information (in Russian or English, print or digital), I’d appreciate it.

Some photos:

From Abandoned Russia

From Wikimedia Commons

From Fishki.net (scroll down)

From Urban3P Project


[1] W. T. Sullivan III, Ed., The Early Years of Radio Astronomy: Reflections Fifty Years After Jansky’s Discovery (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984): 274.

[2] Edward Clinton Ezell and Linda Neuman Ezell, The Partnership: A History of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (http://history.nasa.gov/SP-4209/ch2-5.htm).

Abandoned Observatory, Cornwall

23 01 2012

Belief in Ruins, Truro, Cornwall. Photo courtesy: Urban Exploration Resource

And speaking of abandoned observatories…

Urban Exploration Resource has a description and gallery of what remains of the “Observatory for Cornwall” charitable project on Wheal Busy, Truro, Cornwall.

Wallpaper Wednesday

19 01 2012

Abandoned. Photo credit: Andre Joosse.

For some reason, I missed the fact that yesterday was Wednesday. I’ll make it up to you next week. In the meantime, enjoy these beautiful images of an abandoned residential observatory near Villa Nostra, somewhere in Belgium (thanks, Inge!).

Knightridge Observatory

30 05 2011
Knightridge Observatory, Bloomington, Indiana.

Knightridge Observatory, Bloomington, Indiana. Photo credit: JR.

In my earlier post about (then upcoming) events at the New Jersey Astronomical Association, I mentioned that the telescope at the Paul H. Robinson Observatory used a frame and mount acquired from Indiana University in the mid-1960s.  The images of the frame in its previous home on the NJAA website inspired me to make the ten-minute trip over to Knightridge to inspect the abandoned IU observatory.

As you can see from the photo above, the rather squat building is now surrounded by a small, young wood in suburban Bloomington. At the time of its construction in 1936-37, however, this was a relatively remote site. In fact, it’s far enough outside the (then) city limits that I was surprised to see the obvious signs of electrical connections on the outside of the building (below).  My neighborhood, which is closer to town, didn’t get electricity until 1960, so I guess I’m envious that IU managed to run a line out into the fields of Knightridge.

West approach, Knightridge Observatory.

Approach from West, Knightridge Observatory. Photo credit: JR.

The building is in remarkably good condition.  The mortar between the bricks is holding up well, and although the roof is highly oxidized, it’s still keeping the rain water outside where it belongs—for the most part, that is.  The southeast roof of the building, including one of the shutter doors in the dome, was hit by a falling tree, unfortunately. If this hadn’t happened, the interior would still be dry and tight. Now, as you can see, not only are daylight and water making their way inside, so are plant seeds.

Storm Damage, Knightridge Observatory.

Storm Damage, Knightridge Observatory. Photo credit: JR.

From the outside, the dome looks truly round, but the construction details inside tell a different story. Underneath the sheet metal is a dome constructed of jointed wood ribs in-filled with flat lumber that diminished in length as it approached the apex of the dome. It’s not quite a corbeled beehive vault, but it gives a good approximation of the effect, rendered in wood.

Wooden dome, Knightridge Observatory.

Dome Interior, Knightridge Observatory. Photo credit: JR.

The dome was raised on steel tracks that rested on wheels attached directly to the brick walls of the observatory.

Wheel, Knightridge Observatory.

Wheel, Knightridge Observatory. Photo credit: JR.

All of the wires and most of the mechanics that supported the rotating dome have been stripped from the observatory, leaving behind interesting but non-functional bits and pieces on the second story of the building.

Abandoned Knightridge Observatory.

Abandoned Knightridge Observatory. Photo credit: JR.

Because the dome is no longer water tight, this upper floor is starting to rot. The rectangular opening that once held the mount for the telescope frame is dangerous territory, and I can only hope the people who’ve been using the observatory for late night séances are being very, very careful.

Second Floor, Knightridge Observatory.

Second Floor, Knightridge Observatory. Photo credit: JR.

Despite the weather damage, it’s clear that this is one sturdy little building. It’s also clear that Professor Cogshall wasn’t all that concerned about aesthetics.  Reconsider the Lick Observatory: a dome painted to resemble the heavens, walls finished in California redwood, floor finished with a high-polish mahogany. This modest university observatory bears no trace of a finish plaster or floor varnish. Cogshall was here to get the job done, apparently, and saw no need for embellishments that probably wouldn’t look like much under a red light at night, anyway.

You can view a few more photos of the abandoned building on my flickr site.

Observatories and Instruments