The University of Illinois Observatory will be getting a new look—and not just another view of the stars. The historical building just south of the Main Quad will have its dome renovated as part of a university-wide effort to improve roofs around campus.
The Observatory was built in 1896 and has kept most of its original architecture, with the last renovation coming in 2014, mainly to its telescope. The dome houses a 12-inch Brashear refracting telescope, which is still used for educational purposes.
Earlier this year, the University of Illinois announced that several buildings around campus will be receiving roof renovations as part of a deferred maintenance project. Other buildings that will be renovated include Krannert Art Museum, Smith Memorial Hall, and Noyes Lab.
"It is very exciting,” said Bryan Dunne, teaching assistant professor in astronomy and director of the Observatory. “It's also a big relief for the Observatory itself. The Observatory is one of the older buildings on campus, and the whole roof of the Observatory has needed a renovation for a while.”
Details of the dome renovation are still being settled. Derek Fultz, director of facilities for the College of LAS, said the start date for the dome renovation, as well as the cost and extent of the project, remain to be established. Engineers are deciding what parts of the dome will be able to stay and what will need to be replaced all together. Dunne explained that some parts of the dome tend to stick when it rotates, which has been problematic but has not prevented use of the dome.
“We want to keep a good portion. The dome is of course part of the historic building, so we want to try to keep the historic feel of the dome itself,” Dunne said. “It's the original telescope that was there so we do want to keep that original late 19th century feel. It has its own very kind of old-school mystique.”
The Observatory played a significant role in the history of astronomy as it was the site of key innovation in the area of astronomical photometry, or the study of the intensity of light radiated by objects in space. It was used by renowned astronomer Joel Stebbins, who worked at the U of I from 1903-1922. In 1989, the U.S. Department of the Interior designated the Observatory as a National Historic Landmark.
Though the building is no longer used for research, classes still use the Observatory as a teaching tool, and many people still visit the landmark. The University of Illinois Astronomical Society, a registered student organization, hosted a public open house every month where up to a hundred people would come to look through the telescope.
The telescope in the Observatory is the original telescope that was put in there in the late 1800s. It has been cleaned and repainted over the years, but like the dome and the rest of the building, the original telescope’s look is valued. The Observatory has more modern telescopes that can be set up on the building’s south lawn for outdoor viewing.
Dunne mentioned that an alumni group called Friends of the Observatory did much to bring the dome issues to light. This group has raised money in the past to help with maintenance and to make the needs of the Observatory more visible.
“(They deserve) a lot of credit for bringing the issues of the Observatory to the attention of a campus level,” Dunne said.
Editor's note: Donor opportunities for future Observatory projects are available through the Friends of the University of Illinois Observatory Fund.