McKim Observatory has rich history

Monday, March 30, 2009
McKim Observatory

Putnam County star gazers don't have to go outside to check the sky because they have a telescope in their own backyard thanks to DePauw University.

The McKim Observatory was built in 1884, around the same time Indiana Asbury University became DePauw University. Washington C. DePauw, who was the president of the university's board of trustees in 1881, was convinced that an observatory was an important part of his plan to strengthen and expand the university. He talked to his friend Robert McKim and convinced him of the need for an observatory.

According to DePauw University history, McKim was a prosperous contractor from Madison, and his hobby was astronomy. He agreed to donate $8,000 for construction and equipment, if the board of trustees would change the name of the school to DePauw University. The trustees agreed, and added $2,000 to the project.

The land for the Observatory was purchased in January 1884. It was a track of rolling farmland about a mile from campus and the highest ground for several miles.

According to DePauw's history, there were plans for a short time to move the entire university to this location at Highridge and DePauw Avenues, but by 1901 those plans were dropped.

In 1885 the university built a home nearby for the director of the observatory. Over the years, the area has become entirely residential. The first directorship was given to Professor John P.D. John. Wilbur Brown became the director of the Observatory in 1889, and remained in that position until his death in 1928. He was succeeded by William E. Eddington, who ran the observatory from 1930 to 1953. After that, various members of first the mathematics, and now the physics departments, have been in charge of the facility. 
 In 1959, there was a recommendation that because of its poor condition, the observatory be demolished. For some reason it was not, and in the early 1970s steps toward renovation were taken.

Instead, the Clark telescope was cleaned and repainted. An electric tracking system was installed. In 1975 the original iron dome was replaced with a motorized dome which is still in use.

In December 1979, McKim Observatory was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A second restoration began in the early 1980s when Professor Howard Brooks and a team of students did extensive cleaning and repair work at the observatory. The chronograph and transit telescope were returned to working order. The electrical clock drive was removed and the original gravity drive was reinstalled on the Clark refractor. Interior walls were stripped and repainted and the oak floors were refinished.

In 1985 a deck was added over the roof of the library, providing convenient observing space for classes and special groups.

A final phase of restoration includes plans to correct persistent water leak problems, replace the wood observation deck and possibly restore the exterior finish to its original brick.

The public is welcome to the McKim Observatory Open Houses usually held monthly. The Clark 9.53-inch refractor will be open for viewing the planets, moon, star clusters, nebulae and galaxies. The featured objects will depend on the date and sky conditions. In good sky conditions, the Celestron telescopes are set up on the lawn around the observatory. In the event of total cloud cover open houses will be canceled.

The Observatory is located at the intersection of Highridge and DePauw Avenues just north of Franklin Street in Greencastle. Special tours are available for groups. To arrange a visit to McKim Observatory, call the Department of Physics and Astronomy at 765-658-4654, Dr. Mary Kertzman at 765-658-4647, or Dr. Howard Brooks at765-658-4653.

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