To the naked eye, there are not very many stars visible in the Cincinnati night sky. However, a look through one of Cincinnati Observatory’s telescopes on a clear evening makes it possible to catch a glimpse of the galaxy. It’s no wonder that the observatory’s assistant director and outreach astronomer Dean Regas says the most common reaction from visitors is, “Wow.”
Watching folks look through a telescope for the first time is his favorite part of the job.
“They put their eye up to the telescope, and their eyes literally light up,” Regas says. “The light comes from millions to trillions of miles away through the telescope, down the tube, into their eye, and you can see their eyes light up.”Most people don’t know what to expect when they walk into the Cincinnati Observatory. In fact, Regas himself didn’t know what to expect when he first visited in 1998 when he attended an event to view a passing comet.
“It’s a very intimate moment with the universe. I think we really excite people’s imaginations,” he says. “They see a bigger picture of things, in some ways.”
Sparking this interest in the universe is at the core of the observatory’s mission. Since it opened to the public in 2000, the observatory has been dedicated to educating all generations and preserving the history of the site.
The first major observatory in the Western Hemisphere, it is also home to the oldest public telescope in the United States. Built in Germany, the telescope was first located in Mount Adams on the highest point in Cincinnati in 1845. (Just imagine 171 years’ worth of eyeballs peering out into space as you look through the telescope.) However, coal smoke and other pollution flooding the Ohio River Valley made it impossible to look at the sky, so the telescope was moved to a more remote, rural area for optimal viewing in 1873.
It’s because of the telescope that two of Cincinnati’s seven hills got their names. The telescope’s former home on Mount Adams got its name when John Quincy Adams dedicated the observatory in 1843, and the land surrounding the telescope’s second home was dubbed Mount Lookout.
The oldest telescope is now housed in a smaller building on the observatory’s property, while a telescope purchased in 1904 is housed in the main building. Both are still in use.
Before its opening in 2000, the observatory had long been neglected and was seldom used.
“It was hard to notice the creepy building at the end of the street,” Regas says. “It looked like it was abandoned — trees were all over the place, ivy was growing on the buildings — it was black because of the pollution, and they used the telescopes maybe a dozen times a year.”
The old building came back to life when neighborhood residents and a group of amateur astronomers teamed up to reinvigorate the observatory. Yet with its old-fashioned wood floors and furnishings, stepping into the observatory is like taking a leap back in time. Since its rebirth, attendance at the observatory has gone from 1,000 visitors per year to 26,000.
“To think that there are institutions like this in our city makes it a richer city,” Regas says.
In addition to being open to the public every Thursday and Friday, there are many different classes offered at the observatory, including programs for beginners and continuing education classes for adults. It is a destination for many school field trips and special events such as Moon-day Monday and Late Night Date Night.
Visitors can look forward to special events each time planets move to their optimal viewing positions, with Jupiter Night on March 12, Marsapalooza on June 11 and Saturnday on July 9. You can also take classes at the observatory to learn how to map out the planets’ movements yourself.
Whether you’d like to take a class, catch a glimpse of space or just take a tour of the historic site, that building at the end of a cul-de-sac in Mount Lookout has something for everyone.
For more information about the CINCINNATI OBSERVATORY, visit cincinnatiobservatory.org.