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The Cincinnati Observatory Center

By Sarah Stephens · May 14th, 2008 · Cincitecture
Emily Maxwell

Dedicated in 1843, the Cincinnati Observatory Center is our nation's first public observatory and was the first institution to standardize time for the entire country. In addition, Cleveland Abbe, founder of the National Weather Service, was the first American to predict the weather, which he did from the Cincinnati Observatory during his tenure as director (1868-1871).

In case you couldn't tell by this list of "firsts," the Cincinnati Observatory is an incredibly historic and nationally significant landmark. Even so, I'm constantly surprised by how many people are completely unaware of its existence. Nestled away in the hills of Mount Lookout, I suppose it's rather easy to overlook, but that was sort of the idea back in 1873, when the observatory moved from Mount Adams to the then-isolated hills of Mount Lookout.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Ormsby MacKnight Mitchel, a prominent citizen, enthusiastic astronomer and West Point classmate of John Quincy Adams, founded the Cincinnati Observatory in 1842.

Adams, who had unsuccessfully attempted to build the nation's first observatory before Mitchel, ceremonially laid the building's cornerstone at its original location on Mount Ida. After this visit, in fact, Mount Ida was renamed Mount Adams in honor of the former president. For this prestigious new observatory, Mitchel bought what was then the second largest telescope in the world from Munich (not quite another "first," but close!), and is now the oldest telescope in the world still used by the general public.

By the 1850s, increasing levels of air pollution began to preclude astronomical observation from Mount Adams. Therefore, in 1873 the University of Cincinnati -- which owned the observatory until the late 1990s -- commissioned Samuel Hannaford to build a new structure in Mount Lookout. I had always assumed that the brilliant sheet metal dome was part of the original building, but observatory historian Richard Hunt informed me on a recent tour that the dome was only added in the early 1900s. Before this, the observatory, or Herget Building, was capped with a cylindrical cupola that rotated on ball bearings fashioned with Civil War cannon balls. Today, the dome rotates electronically, but the opening for astronomical viewing is still operated manually by rope and pulley. I have to admit, it was ridiculously exciting to be able to maneuver the gigantic telescope with a hand crank, as well as pull the roof slit open and shut with a thick rope. I know, I know: grow up, Sarah.

The entrance hallway of the Herget leads directly into the Pier Room, which is dominated by -- you guessed it -- a giant cement pier that supports the telescope directly above. Interestingly, no part of the building actually touches the central pier, so as to prevent vibrations from affecting the telescope's accuracy. Restorers are currently unearthing the Pier Room's original wall d├ęcor -- painted faux stone blocks -- and creating custom bookshelves to match the original, curved shelves from 1870.

In the early 1900s, a second observatory, the O.M. Mitchel Building, was added to the grounds. You'll immediately notice that in addition to the standard semi-circular dome, this building boasts an extremely rare cone-topped observatory as well. As far as historians can tell, this comet-seeking observatory is the only one of its kind in the nation. Both buildings have been and are currently being restored with painstaking dedication, and it shows.

The observatory and its grounds have three historic landmark dedications, two of which include the surrounding neighborhood. Whatever your reason -- the history, the buildings, the astronomy, the beautiful surroundings -- a visit to the Cincinnati Observatory Center should be on everyone's must-do list.

For more information on The Cincinnati Observatory Center (3489 Observatory Place, Mount Adams), visit www.cincinnatiobservatory.org.