Holden Observatory: A Short History

November 18, 1887, Syracuse University: Visions of the cosmos flashed through the minds of the students, faculty, and community members of Syracuse as they sat in silence in Hendricks Chapel, listening to plans for the new Observatory. It was a time during which astronomy was still a completely unexplored horizon, a territory unknown. The possibilities seemed infinite to a University that had never pondered such oddities.

The Observatory has been a warrior on this campus. A 126-year-old building, it has stood strong against the daunting hand of time. Both its physical splendor and rich history make it something with which one should want to acquaint oneself. Understanding the individual history of Holden Observatory gives one a larger idea of the type of movement this school has gone through. It is a hidden gem, and even though it is tucked away behind a clustering of buildings nowadays, it stands as prominently on its own plot of land as brightly as when it was first opened.

 

E.F. Holden

Erastus Holden was born into a family of the lower class in Charlotte, NY in 1826. He was described as a hardworking man, and entered into the coal business as a young adult when he moved to Syracuse. He eventually became the Treasurer of Franklin Iron Manufacturing company . A correspondence ensued. The two men worked together in creating something that would foster education and leave a lasting impression on the campus; they named it Holden Observatory .

 

Opening Ceremony

The school was buzzing with excitement on the day of the Dedication Ceremony of Holden Observatory. So much anticipation rose on campus that one freshman claimed “there was no school”. On Friday, November 18, 1887, students, staff, and townspeople gathered in Hendricks Chapel to welcome the new building to the University. Beginning with Responsive Readings and prayer, the service included three speakers: Dr. Simon Newcomb, E.F. Holden, and Chancellor Sims.

Dr. Newcomb, an important lecturer of astronomy of the time, made a speech titled “The Place of Astronomy in the Sciences”. His claim revolved around the fact that even though astronomy was a very small, relatively new branch of science, it still held relevance because of its connections to the history of physics and related sciences. His array of references to past scientists and theories reminded the readers that he was, indeed, a professor. He opened his audience’s eyes to how much is left to be discovered in the cosmos, creating a speech that still rings true in the present day. It seems like one of his goals in speaking such a way about physics was to not only excite his listeners on the subject, but to help them understand why an observatory on campus will foster the minds of the students and surrounding community. The speech closes with less of a factual tone and more of an earnest one:

The knowledge of the littleness of our place in the universe has done more for mankind, has been better for us, than any gratification of our material wants. A few centuries ago the appearance of a comet struck everyone with terror; in the simple thought that we now look upon a celestial visitor with no feeling but admiration for its beauty we have something which more than compensates for all the money and labor we have expended upon observatories and instruments.” . In 1980, the Observatory became a national landmark, which offered it protection and recognition .

Holden Observatory in the mid twentieth century. Credit: Naomi Falk, thanks to Syracuse University Archives

It wasn’t until 1991 that the building was actually . The process was a slow one, taking a couple of days to move the building just 190 feet, moving at four inches per hour. Costing the University $200,000, the building now sits nestled between Eggers, Crouse, and the Law Building on a small clearing

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  • Sims, Charles. “Dedication.” Dedication Ceremony. Syracuse University. Syracuse, New York. 18 Nov 1887. Speech.
  • Holden, E.F. “Letter to Chancellor Sims.”. Syracuse: 29 Oct 1886. 1. Print
  • Flusche, Michael. “Remarks at Holden Rededication.” Syracuse Physics Dept. Syracuse Physics Dept, 3 Sep 1998. Web. 2 Apr 2013 <http://www.phy.syr.edu/info/holden/holden.html>.
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  • Sims, Charles. “The University Observatory.” Newspaper Unknown (written to “The Journal”)(Syracuse) n.d., n. pag. Print.
  • “The Observatory.” Onondagan. (1887): n. page. Print.
  • Newcomb, Simon. “The Place of Astronomy in the Sciences.” Dedication Ceremony. Syracuse University. Syracuse, New York. 18 November 1887. Speech.
  • Holden, E.F.. “Presentation of the Observatory.” Dedication Ceremony. Syracuse University. Syracuse, New York. 18 November 1887. Speech.
  • Dedicatory Exercises of the Holden Observatory.” Syracuse Supplement” (Syracuse) 8 December 1887 1887, n. pag. Print
  • Sims, Charles. “Dedication.” Dedication Ceremony. Syracuse University. Syracuse, New York. 18 Nov 1887. Speech.
  • “Beholden to Holden.” Focus. 1.1 (1948): 10. Print.
  • “Beholden to Holden.” Focus. 1.1 (1948): 10. Print.
  • Photo of Holden Telescope. Kelly, Jane. 1967. Holden Observatory, Syracuse.
  • Flusche, Michael. “Remarks at Holden Rededication.” Syracuse Physics Dept. Syracuse Physics Dept, 3 Sep 1998. Web. 2 Apr 2013 <http://www.phy.syr.edu/info/holden/holden.html>.
  • Milks, Bob. “Astronomy: A Definite Up.” Daily Orange(Syracuse) 13 October 1967, n. pag. Print.
  • Hicken, Melanie. “Recently opened Academic Integrity Office fails to live up to campus community’s great expectations.” Daily Orange (Syracuse) 06 March 2007, n. pag. Print. <http://dailyorange.com/2007/03/recently-opened-academic-integrity-office-fails-to-live-up-to-campus-community-s-great-expectations/>.
  • “The Observatory.” Onondagan. (1887): n. page. Print.
  • Photograph of Holden Observatory. (1970). Syracuse University, Syracuse. Print.
  • “Campus Life: Syracuse; 1887 Observatory, All 375 Tons of It, Moves to New Site.” New York Times (New York City) 20 June 1991. n. pag. Print. <http://www.nytimes.com/1991/06/30/nyregion/campus-life-syracuse-1887-observatory-all-375-tons-of-it-moves-to-new-site.html>.

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