Light, or rather its capture, has been critical to the UI Observatory’s mission of stellar discovery since its construction in 1896.
The UI Observatory is the place where Joel Stebbins developed selenium-based photoelectric cell photometry, using electricity to quantitatively measure starlight.
Ravages of time
David Leake, a Parkland College astronomy and physics professor and the director of Staerkel Planetarium, points out some of the damage to the observatory's bricks -- caused by more than 100 years of moisture. A UI alumnus, Leake and members of the Friends of the UI Observatory group hope to make connections with other alumni in an effort to raise money to renovate and save the observatory. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
It’s also the place where countless UI astronomy students took their first real-time glimpse of Saturn, an occurrence that’s been happening since the teaching facility’s first open house in 1897.
But shine even the faintest light on the building today, declared a National Historic Landmark in 1990, and you’re more likely to illuminate crumbling mortar caused by water damage and years of budget-shifting neglect – as well as the realization the world no longer revolves around the 116-year-old UI Observatory.
“It’s still being used for classes and there are still a lot of artifacts here, but the water and mold over the years are starting to take their toll on the structure and the artifacts,” said David Leake, a professor of astronomy and physics at Parkland College and the director of the William M. Staerkel Planetarium.
“At one time, this was one of the most powerful telescopes in the country,” he said.
A 1983 UI physics graduate and a founding member of the Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society, Leake is part of a growing group formed with the goal of restoring the UI Observatory to its deserving, once legendary status.
The Friends of the UI Observatory, started by former UI physics major and unofficial departmental historian Michael Svec, has begun a campaign to raise funds to repair the domed ceiling and walls housing the original 12-inch refracting telescope.
“Right now we’re in the very early stages,” he said. “Our immediate goal is preservation. We have to find a way to keep it from crumbling and falling down.”
The observatory’s walls are still structurally sound, but years of leaking water have started an efflorescing process, leaving behind a powdery residue of flaking concrete in its wake.
Friends of the UI Observatory, a group formed to renovate the aging campus landmark, is hoping to solicit donations from alumni by reminding them of their connection with the 1896 building, still used for lab work for basic astronomy classes. The brick-and-mortar building surrounding the original 15-foot-tall 12-inch refracting telescope is starting to crumble as a result of time and water damage, which has caused efflorescing. | Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Leake said the group’s goal is to reconnect anyone whose life or career has been touched by the telescope. A fundraising website and Facebook page are now active in an effort to create interest and target donors.
“Every member of the group is an alumnus or currently works at the university,” he said. “Many of us have kept in touch over the years and we’re getting six or seven new friends on Facebook every week. Right now all I’ve been doing is mining for names from old observatory logbooks.”
So far the group has found some initial success, securing a large enough one-time gift to conduct a needs-assessment study of the structure.
UI architecture and design students were charged with the work and were allowed to “dream” a little, revamping the structure on paper to include artifact display and instructional space. He said Facilities and Services and the Champaign-based Preservation and Conservation Association also are involved in the project.
“We’ve gotten some ballpark (cost) estimates but it’s too early to really discuss them,” Leake said. “This will have to be coordinated with the astronomy department. To get this high up on the list, it has to affect student learning.”
Conducting the structural study was unique in the fact that the telescope never actually touches any part of the building, designed that way purposely to reduce image-shaking. The base of the telescope is atop a concrete pylon foundation reaching down several building-floor lengths into the earth. The telescope is connected by fiber-optic cable to a high-resolution spectrometer, viewable at a station on a lower level.
Leake said the telescope is in nearly immaculate condition.
“It isn’t research grade, but it’s really good for teaching,” he said. “For 1896, it’s amazing what good shape it’s in.”
A west wing was built for the department in 1956 and includes a small classroom lab space, and an east wing was added 10 years later and currently houses other campus administrative offices.
The Friends group is proceeding with the project with the blessing of the UI astronomy department, many of whom are ex-officio members.
Charles Gammie, the chair of the UI astronomy department and a professor of physics, said the department still uses the observatory for several basic astronomy classes and offers it for open houses and for amateur astronomy club meetings.
He said time and the elements have led to the diminished condition of the observatory, and deferred maintenance caused by an era of budgetary austerity have made it difficult to properly maintain.
Still, Gammie said, the observatory has a lot to offer campus. He said he has welcomed the involvement of Leake and the Friends group.
“We’re really excited that they’re doing this,” he said. “The observatory is already important for us for teaching, but it’s not as attractive and inviting of a place for us as it could be.”
He said he is inspired by some of the designs and plans offered by the architecture and design students (which included the addition of a 200-seat lecture hall that would replace the east wing), but that securing structural integrity has to be the first order of business.
“Expanding the use and adding classroom space in the middle of campus would be great from our point of view,” Gammie said. “But we’d be more than happy if the Friends group was able to raise enough for basic repairs. I can’t express enough enthusiasm for what they’re doing.”
While modern astronomical research is done in “high and dry” regions of the world, UI astronomy professor Leslie Looney said students gain much from using the old technology in lab work and can learn more about the history of astronomy by being at one of the actual locations where it took place.
“It’s a great thing to watch them look through the telescope and say, ‘Wow, is that real?’ ” he said. “Back in the time it was made, it was really a piece of art.”
Looney said he and others have tried their best to maximize the observatory’s value, initiating new night labs and staffing open houses with upper-level undergraduates to assist and answer questions.
“We are doing what we can with the space, but it’s limited,” he said. “For one thing, you can’t have labs during the day. I would love to find a way to make it even more educational. But that, of course, takes money.”
Outside of the value to astronomy students, Gammie said the observatory’s historical value is something the general campus should cherish as well.
He said Stebbins’ development of photoelectric cell photometry replaced relative-brightness techniques that dated back to the ancient Greeks.
“Before that, they just did it with their eyes,” Gammie said. “That’s why the observatory has the same (landmark) designation as the Statue of Liberty.”