News: Cincinnati at Night: Observatory Center

Our innate attraction to the sky

The night began to turn dark at 6:40 p.m., the sky on the horizon turning a garish orange before the heavens darkened and bloomed with stars. It promised a good night with an eye affixed to telescope. The parking lot filled at the Cincinnati Observatory Center, tucked at the end of Observatory Place in Mount Lookout, behind a residential neighborhood that suggests little of what lies beyond.

From rolling hillsides — the Observatory sits on 14 acres and two buildings with openings to the stars — it's a place of magic where 20,000 visitors a year venture for a glimpse of the heavens. They walk in the building and file one-by-one up a staircase to an observing platform to look through a huge telescope and fix a heavenly body.

The telescope dates from 1842, a Merz and Mahler with a diameter refractor lens of 11 inches and a focal length of almost 17 feet. It's pointed at the planet Venus, 93 million miles away.

Christopher Froendhoff, 9, looks through the lens and fixes the planet in his vision.

"It looks like a big star," he says of the bright light in the sky that centers itself in the middle of the lens.

It's more than that.

It appears through the lens like a diamond with an aura, radiating alone and singular in the lens' circle in the night sky.

There's no heat or air conditioning in the building with the telescope; ambient temperature helps with viewing. Children and adults in overcoats climb the stairs to the observing platform and take a peek. First, Venus, then the Orion nebula — an incubator of dust and gases, where stars are born — then Saturn. The nebula is like a heavenly cloud.

This is the nation's first professional observatory and home to potentially the world's oldest, continuing professional and operating telescope. Viewings Thursday nights are free, although reservations are required; there's a nominal charge Friday and Saturday nights.

The allure of the heavens pulls. The Observatory relocated to Mount Lookout in 1873 to get away from the glare of urban lights. The growing city pinches, but the telescope cuts through the glare as best it can.

"I think it is something buried in our psyche," says John Ventre, a historian with the Observatory staff. "It's the things in the sky, they just have an allure. Just look at the ancient times. Humans just have an attraction to the sky and we haven't lost that."

CINCINNATI AT NIGHT is a photography series organized by Jon C. Hughes during his sabbatical from the University of Cincinnati; the work likely will become a book project as well. Excerpts appear monthly in CityBeat.

Check out the photo gallery.

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