News: Looking Up

Neighborhood activism preserves historic observatory and telescope

Feb 3, 2000 at 2:06 pm
Wendy Uhlman

Tricia Bevan and the historic telescope

Cincinnati has been home to the nation's first professional observatory and holds a significant, if not luminous, position in the history of astronomy. A few years ago, through what could be termed a celestial convergence, a course of events occurred that would change a little corner of our community.

Bear with me: Five years ago, like many of you, I didn't even know there was an observatory in Cincinnati. I thought Observatory Avenue in Hyde Park referred to a street with a view of the river, which geographically made no sense to me. When my then date, now fiancé, drove down the little street that ends in a circle drive curving past the two observatory buildings, I had no idea that within two years our closest neighbor would be the Observatory.

When the members of the Cincinnati Astronomical Society (CAS) built America's first professional observatory on top of Mount Ida with funds garnered from a public levy, the decades-long dream of John Quincy Adams became reality. Then a senator from Massa-chusetts and a septuagenarian, the former President spent six weeks traveling to Cincinnati for the 1843 dedication. His glowing oratory so inspired the audience that Mount Ida (named for a Civil War camp follower reputed to have lived in a nearby tree) was rechristened to honor him. Hence, Mount Adams.

By the 1870s, growing pollution began to obscure the sights for astronomical viewings. Coincidentally, John Kilgour, a noted entrepreneur, was developing rural farmland into what would become one of Cincinnati's first suburbs.

In an effort to encourage migration eastward, Kilgour donated approximately 14 acres to the CAS for a new home. Renowned architect Samuel Hannaford designed the building, which was dedicated in 1873. The area south of the Observatory was named Mount Lookout in reference to the relocated telescope, which was manufactured in Munich in 1842. As a result, the telescope played a role in naming two of Cincinnati's seven hills. By the way: The telescope is the world's oldest telescope still in public use.

A second observatory was opened in 1904. For a variety of reasons, the CAS chose to give the Observatory, telescopes and library to Cincinnati College, which later became the University of Cincinnati.

The Observatory has been the site of many significant scientific discoveries, including the synchronization of standard time. It was through this telescope that Halley's Comet was first sighted in 1910. The first daily weather bulletins were coordinated there, which led to the establishment of the National Weather Bureau. And ironically, the Observatory's former director, Paul Herget, designed the shape of Pringles potato chips, citing a mathematical, celestial orbit.

One constant since the 1970s has been Paul Nohr, the Observatory's astronomer. As UC faculty, Nohr has conducted hundreds of programs for children and adults. Straddling the centuries, Nohr can deftly excite all ages with the history of astronomy, the "O," and amazing detailed images captured by the Hubbell telescope. Nohr has lovingly maintained and repaired the telescopes over the years.

By the 1980s, UC was struggling to make the Observatory financially viable. The site could no longer provide major scientific contributions. Attendance at free Thursday night viewings waned. There were unsubstantiated rumors that condos would be built on the grounds or the buildings would be torn down.

By the 1990s, it was obvious that the buildings were in need of attention. But a celestial convergence had already begun. Neighbors Patty Moeggenburg, Naomi Stoehr, Ann Flannigan, Barbara Stough and Mary Deciccio were part of the core of volunteers who advocated for better use and care of the Observatory and the parklike grounds. Local attorney Buck Niehoff became concerned about the future of the Observatory as his daily run looped past the buildings. He assembled a group of businessmen and UC staff to explore options for the site. But it was the return of two P&G families that changed the fate of the Observatory.

Tricia and John Bevan came back to Cincinnati from New York in 1995, buying a home behind the Observatory grounds on Herschel View. When Ann Schwister and Juan Santamarina began to plan their return from Ann's assignment in Puerto Rico, they too looked for a home within walking distance of the Observatory. By late 1996, they found an 1870 bungalow abutting the grounds.

John Bevan's passion for astronomy was shared by his wife, Tricia, and he soon became involved with the Friends of the Observatory (FOTO), a volunteer group that met monthly at the Observatory and conducted the public nights with the telescope.

Santamarina, a history professor at the University of Dayton, volunteered during the summer of 1997 to assist the Cincinnati Preservation Association (CPA). In that capacity, he went to a meeting at UC organized by Niehoff regarding the Observatory. Throughout 1996, Niehoff had attended several meetings with friends and neighbors of the "O" to

research options for alternative uses. While nothing definitive had been offered, it seemed hopeful progress. But at this meeting a plan was offered, complete with preliminary drawings and a projected budget. While it would increase the educational impact of the site, it would require adding a massive structure to the back of the oldest building on the street, sublimating the historical building to concessions.

Assured this was only an idea and not a done deal, Santamarina began working the street, expanding the ad hoc committee of about 20 to a concerned contingent of over 140 neighbors who were committed to maintaining the historic integrity of the site. That's when most of us became much more acutely soothed and inspired by the mellifluous Australian voice of Tricia Bevan.

Within weeks of the first neighborhood meeting, Bevan had drafted a concept to honor the science of the "O" by turning it into a museum of American astronomy. Attendance would increase during the day with the museum, while visitors for the night telescope viewings and tours of the buildings would be promoted more fully. She had called planetariums and observatories across the country and discovered how highly regarded the site was by professionals. She learned that many older observatories had been demolished, increasing the value of our forgotten treasure. The Adler Planetarium quickly offered to loan astronomical equipment that they had relegated to the basement to help make a Cincinnati museum an actuality. Other institutions were encouraging and enthusiastic, some with stories of their own experiences with our beautiful German telescope.

This quiet neighborhood became a flurry of grassroots activism. At the end of the summer of 1997, part of the neighborhood group assembled at the Observatory to talk with Niehoff and Dale McGirr, UC's vice president for finance. It was clear that much thought had been given to how best to utilize this property as Niehoff read a list of 18 points of consideration. According to those guidelines, the science education addition was still under consideration as a viable option. But when Bevan gave her brief outline of the museum concept, McGirr immediately embraced it as the winning proposition. With a sense of elation and celebration, the first steps of a true public-private partnership had begun.

Task force committees were assembled, and work began to create a nonprofit organization to lease the buildings and grounds from UC for $1 per year for 40 years, renewable for 40 years. We formed The Cincinnati Observatory Center to govern this new entity separate from UC and to raise the funds needed to renovate the buildings and add programs. UC generously offered to continue supporting the Observatory by covering the utilities, maintenance and the astronomers' salary and benefits for a period of 10 years to allow the neighbors start-up time to establish the nonprofit and secure operating funds.

Working with FOTO volunteer John Ventre and CPA, Tricia Bevan drafted an application requesting designation as a National Historic Landmark. Later she learned that their application was perhaps the first submission the Department of Interior had ever received that had been conceptualized and instigated by volunteers. When the official designation notice was received in late 1997, plans began for a community dedication for May 1998. The celebration drew over 300 visitors. Among them was Ohio Sen. Richard Finan, an unexpected and extremely enthusiastic guest. He has since helped secure $100,000 to provide disabled-access renovations for the buildings.

Largely through Tricia Bevan's efforts, the Observatory has had a series of successful events and thousands of Cincinnatians are more aware of the stately buildings as a result of her public relations efforts. The holiday house and Observatory tour in December cast a striking, timeless image: a thousand luminaria twinkling along the street and walkways, many thousands of white lights twining in trees, a lone trumpet playing "Silent Night" and a sliver of a silver moon to the southwest. What century were we leaving?

I guess the moral of the story is that sometimes you need an alien to help align the stars. We've been blessed with a former President, a German telescope and Tricia Bevan.

THE CINCINNATI OBSERVATORY CENTER is located at 3489 Observatory Place in Hyde Park. Public viewings and tours are free on Thursday evenings, and for a small fee on Fridays. Viewing begins at dusk and lasts approximately two hours. Special event rentals are also possible. For more information: 513-321-5186.