The Detroit Observatory

The Detroit Observatory

In his inaugural address in December, 1852, President Henry P. Tappan appealed to the people of Michigan to take an interest in and to support the University. At the conclusion of his address Henry N. Walker, a prominent citizen of Detroit, asked the President how he might be of service, and Tappan suggested the raising of funds for an astronomical observatory.

A meeting was held in Detroit on December 29, 1852, for consideration of this project (Part III: The Astronomical Observatories at Ann Arbor). Tappan and others spoke in favor of it, with the result that the sum of $7,000 was raised immediately, the Honorable Henry N. Walker, General Lewis Cass, Henry Porter Baldwin, later Governor of Michigan, and Senator Zachariah Chandler, each subscribing $500, on condition that an additional $10,000 be obtained from other sources within a year. Walker took a leading part in the drive for funds, which eventually amounted to about $15,000, of which he gave $4,000. In honor of the citizens of Detroit, whose initial gifts made it possible, the Observatory was named “Detroit Observatory,” and this name was used until 1931. The original building and instruments cost $22,000, of which $7,000 was supplied by the Board of Regents from University funds. Subsequently, the citizens of Ann Arbor contributed $2,500 and those of Detroit $3,000 for needed improvements.

In March, 1853, while President Tappan was in Europe, mainly in the interest of the Observatory, Walker, acting in concurrence with him, made arrangements with Professor Richard Harrison Bull, of the University of the City of New York to design the Observatory Buildings. Four acres of land, outside the city, on a hill overlooking the valley of the Huron River, were purchased as a site, at a cost of $100 per acre. The Regents in November, 1853, authorized the purchase of the remainder of the site for the Observatory, which was completed in the summer of 1854.

The building was used entirely by the Department of Astronomy. The central part was 33 feet square, and there are two wings, each 19 by 29 feet. The central part was surmounted by a revolving dome 21 feet in diameter and contained the pier for the 12-inch refractor. The east wing was designed for the meridian circle instrument and the west wing for a library and an office for the director.

(Patricia S. Whitesell, A Creation of His Own: Tappan's Detroit Observatory, p. 87)

The Detroit Observatory

A residence for the Director was added at the west side of the observatory in 1868. It was enlarged and improved in 1905. The house connected with the Observatory through the library. From 1868 unto 1942 the Director and his family resided in the house. After the death of Director Heber Curtin, in 1942, the residence was used for the fall of 1942 to late 1946 as a dormitory for women. The Director's Residence was renovated in 1946, when it was divided into three apartments. The apartments were used by members of the Astronomy Department. In 1954 an addition was made to Couzens Hall and the Observatory Residence was torn down.

The Observatory Director's Residence - added in 1868


Student Observatory
Detroit Observatory (rear)

What was considered the principal building of the Observatory was begun in 1908 and completed in the following year, with the exception of such parts of the dome that could not be finished until the large reflecting telescope was installed. It joined the meridian circle room of the original Observatory on the east in the same manner that the residence joined the library on the west. A circular wall at the south supported the dome of the large reflecting telescope.

The building had two stories and a basement, which was above ground level. On the main floor were the offices of the Director and Secretary, a classroom, clock room, vault, and entrance and main halls. The second floor housed four offices and a darkroom. The basement contained rooms for laboratory, offices, and shop.

Dean B. McLaughlin (The University of Michigan: An Encyclopedic Survey, p. 1741)

The Detroit Observatory Principal Building - added in 1908

In 1963, the Physics & Astronomy Building was completed, and the Department of Astronomy vacated its offices, classrooms, and telescopes on the site that had been dedicated to astronomy for one hundred years, and moved into the new high rise building on East University Avenue. By 1963 the department's astronomical observation was performed mostly at observatories remote from the campus, and many research observations were being made from space vehicles in orbits around the Earth.

Demolotion of the Observatory east Additions & Reflective Telescope

The original Detroit Observatory survived demolition, however it was left unattended for many years. In 1997 a renovation project, directed by Dr. Patricia S. Whitesell was completed, and the Observatory was once again a vision that Henry Tappan created. Dr. Whitesell's book A Creation of His Own: Tappan's Detroit Observatory portrays in great detail the history of the Detroit Observatory.

Patricia Whitesell

Meridian Circle Telescope