Stellar Structure

by Joel Hoekstra

In a fleet-footed Internet-driven age, it's tempting to regard 19th-century structures like Goodsell Observatory as nothing more than sentimental antiques. The building's two silver domes enshrine a pair of giant refracting telescopes—once considered state of the art, but long rendered archaic by reflecting scopes and digital equipment. The kitchen-table-sized computer installed in Goodsell by the math department in 1959 would today seem a dinosaur.

But if the technology has faded, the memories are intact. Few who set foot on Carleton's campus fail to notice the vaguely Richardsonian Romanesque building perched above Lyman Lakes. Visitors can see the meteorite collection housed in the entryway and attend monthly open houses to catch a glimpse of Jupiter or a Ring Nebula. 

"When Apollo 15 landed on the moon, near Mount Hadley, in the summer of 1971, I went up and looked through one of the telescopes," says David Davis-Van Atta '72, the last of Carleton's astronomy majors and the College's current director of institutional research and analysis. "I couldn't see anything, of course, but it felt much more real."

Goodsell's status as a campus landmark is indisputable. In the late '70s, when research indicated that prospective students associated images of the observatory with their recent visits, College officials reshot the cover picture of the viewbook so that Goodsell loomed larger in the foreground, Davis-Van Atta says. And though it nearly had a date with a wrecking ball (a 1960s-era master plan for the campus called for demolishing it), Carleton's second-oldest building survived and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

Timekeeper for the Northwest
Carleton's reputation and, one might argue, very survival once relied heavily on Goodsell's presence on the campus. Astronomy—or at least the College's telescopes—helped put the school on the map during its early years. "Astronomy was probably the only reason that anyone beyond the borders of the state would have heard of Carleton for its first quarter century," says College archivist Eric Hillemann. "It was our only ornament."

The man responsible for this campus gem was William Wallace Payne, hired in 1871 as a professor of mathematics and natural philosophy. Astronomy was one of the most popular sciences of the 19th century, and Wallace, who as a youth had worked at the Cincinnati Observatory, was determined to share its wonders with his colleagues and students. Six years after his arrival, Payne convinced the trustees of the 200-student school to break ground for an observatory. Built on a site currently occupied by Laird Hall, the small wooden observatory was fitted with a 4 3/10-inch Byrne equatorial refractor. (The telescope was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1996.) Payne began teaching astronomy courses and often opened up the observatory to the public. More important, however, the observatory earned Carleton the title of "timekeeper for the Northwest." The railroads snaking across western North America required more accurate time signals than they believed Western Union, based in Washington, D.C., could provide. Payne established a telegraph that provided exact time calculations and weather reports to several Western railroads based on his observatory readings. Time and weather service proved to be invaluable in spreading Carleton's reputation.

"I think [Payne] recognized that he was laying the foundations for a study that was unique and valuable, mostly for students," says Doug Foxgrover, a College physics and astronomy lab manager who took a shine to Payne after discovering his carefully kept weather reports. "But he also did all these other things that left Carleton this tremendous legacy."

Payne outfitted the observatory with an 8 1/4-inch Alvan Clark and Sons telescope, two clocks, and a Fauth transit circle—an instrument vital to measuring sidereal (star) and solar time. But in the mid-1880s, shortly after ordering a $5,000 meridian circle from a prestigious German company, the professor ran into trouble. For one thing, the St. Paul jeweler who had promised to pay for the precision-improving instrument died unexpectedly, leaving the bill unpaid. (Minnesota railroad magnate James J. Hill, whose trains used Carleton's service, ultimately paid for the meridian, which remains in Goodsell.) To make matters worse, the instrument that arrived didn't fit in the old observatory. In 1886, the cornerstone was laid for a bigger, better observatory, which ultimately was named after Charles M. Goodsell, one of the College's early financial supporters.

Carleton's Crown Jewel
The building was an anomaly. St. Paul architect J. Walter Stevens, who chose its russet-colored brick and large undressed stone, clearly was influenced by the then fashionable Romanesque revival style (Scoville Library sprang from the same genre). But incorporating two silver domes and the massive cone-shaped structural piers necessary to support two heavy telescopes must have been a daunting challenge. The flat-roofed sections of the building contained two slits—one running north-south, the other east-west—for calculating time via the movement of the stars. Stained-glass clerestory windows on the building's west end depicted the orbs of some as-yet-undiscovered galaxy.

Astronomy was, by this time, a feather in Carleton's cap. Serious studies of the subject were aided by a donation in 1890 from Edward W. Williams (who also financed Williams Hall, which was razed in 1961) of a 22-foot-long Brashear refractor telescope, weighing 27,000 pounds and worth $15,000.

Payne too promoted interest in astronomy—as well as in Carleton—by publishing The Sidereal Messenger, which during its run was the most influential and successful astronomical journal in the country. Its successor, Astronomy and Astrophysics, evolved into the foremost professional periodical of astronomy in the world today, Astrophysical Journal. Payne's attempt to develop a second publication, aimed at amateurs, became Popular Astronomy, a widely circulating magazine that existed until the 1950s.

Payne retired from Carleton shortly after the turn of the century, but his bricks-and-mortar legacy remains important to the College's current astronomy students and instructors. "Having this building on campus is crucial to helping my students develop a sense of wonder and awe in the universe and develop a sense of confidence in using the tools of astronomy," says physics and astronomy professor Cindy Blaha.

The Remains of the Heyday
By the 1960s, Carleton, which had abandoned its timekeeping service in the 1930s, was facing a recession. At the same time, College officials were under pressure to add new curricula in areas such as Asian and Afro-American studies. President John Nason proposed to the Board of Trustees that some programs be cut to make room for the new. Nason recommended eliminating the astronomy major entirely, including razing Goodsell. A campus development plan from the late 1960s shows a rectangular student union on the Goodsell site. A faculty task force assigned to study the matter recommended strongly that Goodsell be saved but allowed for elimination of the astronomy major, arguing that most graduate programs in astronomy were more concerned that applicants have strong physics and math backgrounds anyway. The task force was adamant that an astronomy professor remain on the faculty and that an astronomy program remain part of the Carleton curriculum.

Today, introductory astronomy courses are popular, as are advanced studies in astronomy and astrophysics. The student yearbook, The Algol, takes its name from a "variable star of the second order"—a sardonic reference to the varying brightness of the school's graduates in the early years. 

Another remnant from Payne's era is public viewing night. Several times a year, Blaha and physics and astronomy professor Joel Weisberg open the building to parents, Cub Scout troops, amateur astronomers, and curious stargazers.

"It's gratifying to me that students still love to look through the telescopes," Weisberg says, even as he acknowledges the contributions of digital cameras and computer imaging to the science of the stars and planets. Nothing beats encountering another world with a telescope: "There's something that's satisfying when you consider the light hurtling through space, crashing into your eye, and suddenly you see Andromeda."

Joel Hoekstra is a freelance writer who lives and writes in the Twin Cities.

What's in the Stars for Goodsell?

Goodsell Observatory is far from a useless campus relic. It still houses the astronomy department's telescopic equipment and laboratory space, faculty offices from several departments, and the Keck Geology Consortium.

Aside from these utilitarian purposes, Goodsell marks the beginning of Carleton's eclecticism in architecture, says Keith Covey, who retired recently as director of facilities but continues to advise Carleton as a planning manager.

"Historical buildings—such as Goodsell and the Chapel—contribute character to the campus in immeasurable ways," says Covey. "And if you look at the area around Goodsell—Boliou, Laird, Olin, the Center for Mathematics and Computing, the music hall, the library—it's like a microcosm of American architecture."

Built in 1887, Goodsell Observatory has been reasonably well cared for, but numerous updates are necessary, says Covey. The most pressing need is an updated ventilation system for the offices and public spaces. The heating system is essentially original and air-conditioning should be installed so tenants are more comfortable in the summer. Accessibility issues also need to be addressed.

Considering the extensive remodeling done to other campus buildings of its era, Goodsell is remarkably unchanged, says Covey. "Through the years, we've tried to respect the original details of the building as we've remodeled it." The lower level was partitioned to create offices, but the building's exterior and most of its interior remain the same. The windows and front doors are original, as is the wooden pedestal in the rotunda that houses several display cases.

Long-range plans for Goodsell are unclear, according to Richard Strong, Carleton's new director of facilities. "We know we'll be remodeling several campus buildings over the next 10 years and Goodsell is definitely part of that plan," he says. "We have to take extreme care when remodeling these older buildings—we recognize our obligation to preserve their historical character."

The construction of buildings near Goodsell affects its use as well. New walking paths near Goodsell lead to the Recreation Center on the northeast edge of campus and the academic and dining building to the east. Strong says those new facilities may cause a shift in campus focus. "Suddenly Goodhue is becoming a more desirable dorm to live in and the center of campus is moving away from the west side, with Goodsell becoming the center of it all," he says.

Covey agrees that it is crucial to keep Goodsell in mind when making plans for the future. "It's important to maintain the dark night sky for the functionality of an observatory on campus," he says, adding that modifications were made in lighting around the Recreation Center to preserve optimal night sky viewing from Goodsell—ensuring that future Carls will enjoy this campus jewel.

—Marla Holt is director of media relations for the College.