Skip to main content

University Vying for Trust Funds for Historic Observatory

Heyden Observatory

"The Georgetown University Observatory – one of the first fixed astronomical observatories in the U.S. – was used by astronomers to study and map the skies for around 125 years," said University Archivist Lynn Conway.

May 1, 2013 – Georgetown’s historic observatory is competing against 23 other historic places in the Washington, D.C., area to receive grant money to help protect the building.

The Francis J. Heyden Observatory is part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2013 “Partners in Preservation Program,” a community-based initiative that awards grants to historic sites through online voting and social media interaction.

The sites competing for preservation grant money earn points during the voting period, which began in late April and closes May 10, when people can vote online up to once a day,

Mapping the Skies

“The Georgetown University Observatory – one of the first fixed astronomical observatories in the U.S. – was used by astronomers to study and map the skies for around 125 years,” notes University Archivist Lynn Conway. “In the 1960s, it served the needs of students in the largest graduate department of astronomy in the country.”

Points are also earned when people share their vote with friends via Twitter, check in at the historic site on Foursquare and take photos on Instagram. The historic site with the most points at the end of the contest will receive a $100,000 grant.

The Heyden Observatory – the third oldest in the country – became a national historic landmark in 1973 for contributing “significantly to the cultural heritage and visual beauty of the District of Columbia,” according to the National Register of Historic Places.

Longitude and Latitude

Rev. James Curly, S.J., founded and designed the university’s observatory, completed in 1844, and served as its director for 50 years.

The observatory is best known for calculating the longitude and latitude of Washington, D.C., for the first time in 1846.

It also was home to the creation of the photo chronograph, the first instrument to observe the transits of the stars photographically and the basis for the photographic zenith telescope, developed by Rev. George A. Fargis, S.J., and Rev. John Hedrick, S.J., in the 1890s.

Heyden’s Legacy

The structure later was named for Rev. Francis J. Heyden, S.J., who became an assistant professor of astronomy at Georgetown in 1945 shortly after receiving his Ph.D. in the field from Harvard.

Heyden, who died in 1991, became observatory director in 1945 and initiated a program of courses in graduate astronomy. From 1947 to 1963 he organized seven solar eclipse expeditions to various parts of the world, supported primarily by the U.S. Air Force.

He trained observers to go to different locations along the eclipse path, including several graduate students who obtained material for their theses at Georgetown and other institutions.

When the observatory closed in 1972, Heyden continued his research in the Philippines.

Restoration Plans

Today the biology department uses the observatory classroom as a research lab for the Laboratory of Entomology and Biodiversity, a forest ecology class, research meetings, and meetings of the interns and the director of the Center for the Environment, says center director and biology professor Edward Barrows.  

“The observatory harbors the Georgetown Arthropod Collection, used for teaching and research, which has thousands of specimens,” Barrows says. “The older specimens are ones that I collected in the 1960s.”

Georgetown will utilize the grant money to help restore the building’s exterior walls and floors, remove existing lead paint, repaint the exterior and stabilize the roof.

Matthew Oswald (C’14), Georgetown University Astronomical Society (GUAS) president, believes the observatory is a hidden treasure on campus.

“Our main goals are to share the rich history of the Heyden Observatory and to continue its legacy by providing a place for interested members of the Georgetown community to learn about the sky,” he said.

Georgetown University37th and O Streets, N.W., Washington D.C. 20057(202) 687.0100

Connect with us via: