Observing the Observatory – final draft!!

Posted on September 10, 2010 
Filed under Assignments

The O’Donoghue Observatory.

Comm208 Writing Assignment

Final Draft

By Chris Mansfield

On a chilly, rainy Thursday, students walk quickly by the building without giving it a second glance.  Many students may even graduate without setting foot in it.  On a campus where many of the buildings measure tens of thousands of square feet, it figures out to just 678 square feet.  (Some dorm suites are larger.) According to the latest course catalog, no classes are held here.

The O’Donoghue Observatory sits on the expansive lawn to the northwest of the James and Sharon Walker Science Center on the Morningside campus.  Gifted to the college in late 1948, the observatory, named for Dr. James H. O’Donoghue, was formally dedicated on May 28, 1950, the 60th anniversary of the namesake’s graduation from Morningside, then known as the University of the Northwest. Dr. O’Donoghue’s son, Dr. Arch F. O’Donoghue, gave the observatory to the college in honor of his father. The dedication, following the college’s baccalaureate services, featured a panel of speakers whose names were eventually to grace several other buildings on the campus, such as President Earl Roadman and Miss Lillian E. Dimmitt.

Except for the original door with a porthole window (which was replaced with a solid steel door sometime in the recent past) the building looks much the same as it did when dedicated over 60 years ago. It’s large, silver dome sits imposingly atop a short, stout single story building.  Its tan brick walls provide a firm footing for green ivy that covers them like an airy quilt.  The ivy’s long tendrils are just now starting to assault the silver dome, and have almost covered the building’s name above the doorway.

Appearing to sit dormant for several years, the observatory hosts a 12” reflector telescope “of the German type of mounting which has many advantages and few drawbacks” according to the dedication program from the Morningside archives. At the time of its construction, this was the largest telescope in the state of Iowa.  (It may still be one of the largest, as the telescope atop the physics building at the University of Iowa is only 7”.)

Peering through the windows, the interior walls are decorated with a timeline of the universe.  In several places, the plaster and paint are peeling from moisture, and chips of the same litter the floor just in front of the door leading up to the telescope chamber itself.

As a child, my parents would point out the observatory building to me while driving past, and I was suitably impressed. I could imagine peering through the optics at the craters of the moon, rings of Saturn, or the Great Red Spot of Jupiter. Years later, as a newly minted freshman in the fall of 1985, I don’t believe I ever gave the O’Donoghue much thought as my interests were more fixed on the new television studio and student operated radio station.

We may not know what the future holds for this building, arguably the smallest, but (for me, at least) probably the most memorable of buildings on the Morningside campus.



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