Hiram College sold its telescope, marking the end of a 121-year-old observatory

Stephens Memorial Observatory pictured around 1942. Hiram College photo

Hiram College has sold its Cooley Telescope, which has been scanning the heavens since 1901, to a private buyer in Canada for an undisclosed amount.

Both the telescope and the observatory building that housed it were in need of renovation, but Hiram College leaders determined the extensive work needed did not justify the cost.

New owner Peter Ceravolo dismantled the device and transported it earlier this month from the Stephens Memorial Observatory in Hiram to British Columbia, where he will refurbish it for future use.

Why Ceravolo wanted it is anyone’s guess.

“It’s a passion,” said longtime observatory director and curator James Guilford. “Why would somebody like an old car that they have to fix up? This is something along those lines. It’s a fascination with older technology.”

A volunteer, Guilford hosted monthly viewing sessions for students and public and private groups. He was responsible for the observatory’s operations and had been working since spring 2006 to preserve and enhance the observatory and visitor experiences.

Guilford said he believes the observatory will be demolished.

A post on the Stephens Memorial Observatory website earlier this year announced the facility was closed indefinitely.

“Due to issues with our observatory building, we have no planned public observing nights on our 2022 calendar at this time,” it read. “Recent years have not been kind to our 1939 building, anticipated repair costs are high, and certain problems are interfering with basic operation.”

With the KSU/NASA Observatory closed for repairs, there are no Portage County opportunities left for public astronomy. Kent State has not publicized a reopening date. The closest open observatory is at Observatory Park in Geauga County.

Since Ceravolo did not have a semi-tractor trailer rig to transport the telescope, it had to be dismantled for the journey, Guilford said.

“As he got further and further into the workings, he was more and more impressed,” Guilford said. “It turns out that Hiram’s telescope was on the more sophisticated side of the way those things ran. It was research-grade in the day.”

The Stephens Memorial Observatory. Image via Google

The telescope was named for the Rev. Lathrop Cooley, the benefactor who gifted it to Hiram College. A plaque honors him for presenting the telescope to Hiram College on Oct. 25, 1901, “on his 80th birthday and the 58th year of his ministry.”

Lathrop was a Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) minister and a successful businessman who invested in real estate. His interest in education led to a 30-year tenure as benefactor and trustee of Hiram College. During the dedication ceremony he remarked, “This instrument is erected here so that you may climb the steep of heaven and walk among the stars.”

Lathrop’s gift was initially housed at the Teachout Library and Observatory, built in 1900 on the highest point of Hiram College’s campus.

Dedicated at Hiram College in 1901, the telescope and its mount were built at Cleveland’s Warner and Swasey telescope factory, which was formed in 1880 by Worcester Reed Warner and Ambrose Swasey, then known for making the world’s largest telescopes.

The Cooley Telescope boasts a nine-inch aperture and a 131-inch focal length. Its lens elements are crown and flint glass made by the John Brashear Co. in Pittsburgh, which then was a leading telescope optics manufacturer. With the range of eyepieces the device uses, the telescope’s magnification ranges from about 30x to 250x.

Through the years it retained its original optical and drive components. Despite its age, the Cooley’s optics remained on-point, providing impressive views of the solar system.

The observatory was attached to a then-new library building which was completed in 1900. Donor Abram Teachout paid the full cost of construction, which totaled $10,000. A transit observatory was sited to the left of the dome. 

One problem: the telescope’s location atop the building’s boiler room meant soot and heated air dirtied the telescope’s lens and roiled the air. Even so, it remained there until a February 1939 fire seriously damaged the observatory and library. The wood-framed, metal-skinned dome was removed and kept for reuse, and the telescope was shipped back to Warner and Swasey in Cleveland for cleaning and checking.

On April 9, 1939, Hiram College leaders announced that Ella M. Stephens of Cleveland would donate funds to construct a new observatory to house the Cooley telescope and support astronomy at the college. The new facility, dubbed the Stephens Memorial Observatory, opened in 1941.

The new site, now between two private homes, was a half mile from the previous one, and never was part of Hiram’s campus, Guilford said. The facility’s grounds were originally open to the southeastern sky, but later tall trees to the southeast and a line of trees along the western property line obscured vision lines.

“They cut off everything along the western horizon, and even before that,” Guilford said. “We had a narrow slot to the south-southwest and south-southeast, just kind of a little corridor there, and of course overhead, but with the type of telescope we had there, it’s hard to observe very high in the sky.

That left observers able to look to the north or to the south.

“You can imagine it really did limit the amount of space that we could see,” Guilford said.

“That makes things like in the evening being able to see the planet Venus, or Mercury when it makes its appearance, or the amount of time that we could see anything passing across the sky at night — it put severe limits on those things.”

Read a complete history of the telescope and see pictures here.

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Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.