Plans have been launched for the restoration of the second oldest building on campus. The Detroit Observatory, built in 1854, was so named because the University's first President, Henry P. Tappan, wished to recognize the contributions of the major donors from Detroit who provided the funds for the Observatory. Only the U-M President's House (1840) predates it, but that structure has been extensively modified.
The Detroit Observatory, at East Ann and Observatory Streets, was one of the most important early American scientific laboratories, and as such is the most important physical legacy of the U-M's early scientific preeminence. Today, it is the most significant mid-19th-century observatory in America in its unaltered form, with its original instruments still intact and operational.
Restoration of the University's historic Detroit Observatory was approved by the Regents at their November meeting. A total of $2.9 million is needed for the project. The University will provide $1.4 million for the restoration of the existing structure, creation of a small museum, restoration of the historic telescopes, and compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements for access.
A fund-raising campaign is under way to attract $1.5 million in contributions to provide an endowment that will fund a part-time docent/curator/building manager position and provide for the future maintenance of the structure.
Responsibility for managing the building rests with the Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR). Research Vice President Homer A. Neal has appointed an Observatory Advisory Group and named Patricia S. (Sandy) Whitesell of OVPR to chair it and coordinate the restoration of the building. The members are Anne M. Duderstadt, institutional advancement officer; Robert Warner, professor of history, University Historian, former director of the National Archive and former dean of the School of Information and Library Studies; Patrick Seitzer, assistant professor of astronomy; and William J. Hennessey, director of the Museum of Art.
Quinn Evans Architects of Ann Arbor was named architect for the project.
"The building will serve as a focal point for the history of science at the University and the scientific contributions U-M researchers made to the modern world," Whitesell says. "There is a large community with fond feelings for the building. To some, it symbolizes the University's early history and U-M's dedication to scientific research initiated by President Tappan, while others have a personal connection to the old building they came to know when they were students on campus. We wish to preserve the building so that future generations can benefit."
Advisory Group members Anne Duderstadt and Whitesell, with various assistants, have cleared the Observatory of accumulated collections of historical medical artifacts that were being warehoused in the building. They prepared a handsome meeting room and historical photographic displays to facilitate tours and special meetings that would take place prior to the onset of the restoration work. Whitesell is undertaking historical research on the building, its telescopes, and the scientific activities that have
taken place at the Observatory.
"For historical interest," Duderstadt says, "we left on the walls of basement storage rooms some graffiti written and drawn by students who apparently used the area during the 1970s."
"Many universities have historic observatories on their grounds, but what makes Michigan's observatory unique is its unaltered state," notes Whitesell. "The dome and shutters still operate manually with ropes and cables, in contrast to other observatories that have been converted to power operation."
"Two wings were attached to the original building," Duderstadt notes. "The last wing was demolished in 1976. Some planners wanted to raze the original building, too, but the Ann Arbor Historical Commission and Prof. Emerita Hazel "Doc" Losh led the opposition to that action." The building had already been placed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, but had been little used, a condition that will now change markedly with its impending restoration.
Tappan and the Regents
Arriving on campus in 1852, theologian-philosopher Henry Philip Tappan applied the Prussian educational model he admired to launch the University on a progressive course of achieving excellence in science and the humanities. Political and personality difficulties with some of the Regents led to his removal in 1863.
Tappan left for Europe that year, and eventually settled in Switzerland where he lived until his death in 1881. In 1875, however, U-M Regents officially expressed their regret to Tappan. They withdrew "any censure, expressed or implied" contained in the resolution that had dismissed him. They took note of the "great work done by him in organizing and constructing this institution of learning upon the basis from which its present prosperity has grown" and said his "eminent services" had earned the gratitude "of the University and the People of the State of Michigan."JW.
For further information, or to make a donation, contact Dr. Patricia S.
Whitesell, Office of the Vice President for Research, 4056 Fleming Building,
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1340, telephone: (313) 936-3933 E-mail: