The Buildings of the Detroit Observatory

The 1854 Detroit Observatory building evolved over time, gaining a director's residence and a large classroom addition with a new telescope. Both these additions were razed, but thanks to the efforts of many, the original building was saved and recently restored.

Oldest known photograph of the Observatory

Bentley Historical Library (bl001680)

This earliest known photograph of the building, circa 1858 at the right, shows the original exterior, which was stucco over brick. The stucco was scored and individually tinted to look like stone.


Bentley Historical Library (bl000073)

Jasper Cropsey's painting of the Observatory was done in 1855, before the stucco was applied (note the pink color).The building likely remained plain brick until sufficient funds were available and the brick and mortar had cured. Then the simple building was "dressed up" with stucco to make it appear more impressive.

When this special faux stone stucco finish became soiled over time, the decision to paint over the stucco, rather than attempt to clean it or recreate it, necessarily prevailed because the intensive labor and technical expertise required for restoration was undoubtedly prohibitive. The Observatory's original stucco was painted over approximately 30 years after the building was erected.


Bentley Historical Library (bl001681)

The second director, James Craig Watson, added a residence to house his family in 1868. The house was attached to the west side of the building, with an entrance through the director's office.

The Observatory residence was continuously occupied by the director until 1942, when it was used as a residence for women. In 1946, it was divided into apartments for the director and members of the astronomy faculty. It was razed in 1954 to make way for the Couzens Hall dormitory expansion.

A Students' Observatory was erected in 1878 to the south of the meridian room, during Watson's administration, partly in response to student complaints that the Observatory's telescopes were seldom available because the faculty used them for research. To fund the project, Watson obtained the Regents' approval to accept an offer made by the United States Government to erect a small observatory in order to observe the transit of Mercury in May 1879. The University later provided telescopes to replace the government's telescopes (which had been reclaimed after Mercury observations were finished). The Student's Observatory was moved several hundred feet to the west in 1908, then razed in 1922 to make way for Couzens Hall, a new dormitory for nurses. Several other outbuildings were constructed on the Observatory grounds to house an instrument shop and other adjunct functions.

Bentley Historical Library (bl001686)

By 1908, modern astronomy required a bigger and better telescope, so a large classroom building and a dome for a 37 1/2-inch reflecting telescope was added to the east of the building, off the meridian room. The picture at right shows the Observatory complex circa 1927, after the University Hospital was built across the street. People can be seen sitting on the Hospital's front steps.

historical floor plan drawing

Quinn Evans/Architects

Ann Street was widened to accommodate increased hospital traffic, which necessitated steepening the grade in front of the Observatory and adding a longer staircase up the hill to the Observatory's front door. The original Observatory building served as the Astronomy department's library during this time, with bookcases predominating in the former's director's office and the rotunda area around the main telescope pier.

Bentley Historical Library (bl001693)

The 1908 addition was razed in 1976, having been condemned due to termite damage. The astronomy department moved to the Dennison building in 1963 and the original Observatory building was soon derelict. The cornerstone of the 1908 addition was, however, saved, and it was incorporated into the handicap ramp's foundation wall (see below), which was added during the 1997-98 restoration of the building.