Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project


Maria Mitchell Observatory

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Institution Name: Vassar College
Original/Historic Place Name: Observatory
Location on Campus: 653 feet northeast of Main Building
Date(s) of Construction:
1864original construction Farrar, Charles S.
Designer: Charles S. Farrar
Type of Place: Individual building
Style: Romanesque revival, Other (Glossary)
Significance: architecture, culture, education, engineering
Narrative: see below
References: see below
Foundation: stone masonry
Walls: brick
Roof: tin and asphalt
ca. 1864observatory
ca. 1864other (laboratory)
ca. 2004-present (2006)other (offices)
ca. 2004-present (2006)classrooms

The Observatory was placed on the National Register of Historic Landmarks in July 1991 since it was deemed to be of great significance for women's history by virtue of its association with Maria Mitchell and her role in educating women students in the science of astronomy.

The first building to be completed at Vassar, the Observatory was, at the time, the only classroom building outside Main. The structure, situated 653 feet northeast of Main, faced west and was designed with an octagonal center of twenty-six feet in diameter surmounted by a dome twenty-seven feet seven inches in diameter. Three identical protruding wings extended north, east, and south. On the second story were a prime vertical room, a transit room, and a clock and chronograph room, all named for the instruments used in them. Brick was the primary construction material, and the dome, made of pine, was opened by a system of pulleys. The dome and instruments were supported by stone piers, made from granite, Onandaga limestone, and Westchester marble. The Observatory had a telescope (now at the Smithsonian) purchased from Henry Fitz, celebrated telescope maker. The Vassar Observatory was unique in its time in that it was designed for students. Samuel F.B. Morse, a trustee of Vassar College, saw to it that the building had a telegraph line within 1000 rods of the building to connect it with other observatories.

Unfortunately, the observatory in recent years has been vulnerable to the encroachment of light, noise, and electronic interference. Though now used for other purposes, its exterior was recently restored. A new building, the Class of 1951 Observatory, located in a more remote part of the campus, has replaced the earlier observatory as the home of the astronomy program.


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Gaines, Thomas A. The Campus as a Work of Art. New York: Praeger, 1991.

Horowitz, Helen Lefkowitz. Alma Mater: Design and Experience in the Women's Colleges from Their Nineteenth-Century Beginnings to the 1930s. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.

Lewis, Dio. The New Gymnastics. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1862.

Linner, Edward R. Vassar: The Remarkable Growth of a Man and His College. Elizabeth A. Daniels, ed. Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar College, 1984.

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Lossing, Benson J.. Vassar College and Its Founder. New York: C. A. Alvord, 1867.

MacCracken, Henry Noble. The Hickory Limb. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950.

Miscellany News. Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY.

Plum, Dorothy A., and George B. Dowell. The Great Experiment, A Chronicle of Vassar. Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar College, 1961.

Schuyler, Montgomery. "The Architecture of American Colleges: X. Three Women's Colleges: Vassar, Wellesley & Smith." Architectural Record 31 (May 1912).

Swan, Frances W. et al., eds. Communications to the Board of Trustees of Vassar College by Its Founder. New York: Vassar College, 1886.

Van Lengen, Karen, and Lisa Reilly. Vassar College: An Architectural Tour. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2004.

Vassar College Observatory. National Historic Landmark designation report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior/National Park Service, [n.d.].

Vassar College Observatory. National Register of Historic Places designation report. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of the Interior/National Park Service, 1991.

Vassar Quarterly. Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY.

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