Waveland Observatory (Drake Municipal Observatory)

Originally submitted by: Bailey Cernohous, Drake University, September 28, 2011.

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Drake Municipal Observatory at night. approx 1960.

Location

Contrary to popular belief, not all Drake property is on Drake campus. The Drake Municipal Observatory is used for Astronomy lectures and labs, and it is located a little over two miles off campus. It is located on a hill at the Waveland Golf Course [1]. Due to being on a hill, the observatory has a fairly clear view of the sky. However, according to Mary Jean Timp, when the facility was brand new, the view was much better. Back in the day the site was a relatively open countryside without streetlights–the addition of which tend to produce an obscuring haze in the sky [2].

History

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Google map from Drake University to Drake Municipal Observatory. September 28, 2011. copyright - google. http://maps.google.com/maps?hl=en&tab=vl

In 1921, when the observatory was built, Daniel Morehouse was simply a professor of physics and astronomy at Drake. However, he was a dedicated professor, serving as head of the Astronomy Department, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, and President of the university. Astronomy was Professor Morehouse’s strong point, and was known best among his fellow astronomers for discovering a comet in 1908 at an observatory in Wisconsin. This comet he found was named after him and had a recorded tail length of 140,000 miles long. Morehouse made another discovery, but this time at the Drake Observatory. He found a nebulous star. He said “these nebulous stars are very rare and very interesting, it is possible that light from this nebula started 100,000 years ago and has just reached the earth” [5].

Rumor has it that the observatory is haunted. Yes, the building has been vandalized several times over the years, but apparently the spirit of Morehouse roams the building. Immured behind a bronzed plaque mounted on a wall dedicated to Morehouse are the ashes of Morehouse and his wife, Myrtle. The observatory served as a second home for Morehouse while he observed a particular heavenly body or exposed developed photographic plates. He even had a bedroom in the basement. Today the frame of his single, iron bed is still there, as well as some old photographic plates and an abandoned darkroom where he often worked [6]. It is quite possible that the spirit of Morehouse is within this building considering it was his life and his remains are embedded in the building.

Restoration

After 98 years the telescope needed some major repairs. The restoration, originally priced at an expected $10,000, included repairing, restoring and modernizing the telescope. Warren Kutok, owner of Photon Instrument Ltd. of Evasion, was the mastermind behind the restoration. Refurbishing the observatory was more than just cleaning and polishing the telescope; it also included programming a new motor drive for allowing star gazers to use. Madelyn M. Levitt, among other longtime and generous supporters, donated $150,000 toward the renovation, therefore allowing Drake to maintain their role in the observatory. Levitt was content with the fact that Drake was continuing its ‘gentleperson’s agreement’ by keeping the grounds to supply learning opportunities to its students since 1921 [7].

Architecture (interior and exteri
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Drake Municipal Observatory's open house brochure. May 4, 2001. copyright - Drake University.
or)

The observatory is 90 years old this year. The building was made of stone blocks with carved zodiac signs outlining the doorway. A spiral, metal staircase is how the dome is accessed [8]. The dome-roofed circular observing room located on top of the observatory is where the telescope is currently housed. The dome can rotate to easily track stars. There are two retractable doors for extension of the telescope. A lecture room seating one hundred people can also be found in the observatory. Found inside the lecture room is a trippensee planetarium, which is a scale model of the earth and moon orbiting the sun [9].

Events

In the fall and spring the observatory is open to the public on Friday evenings to view stars and to attend public lectures about astronomy. Sometimes the observatory is used for informal community classes, weddings and even social events. Apparently the Astronomical Society is attempting to devise a plan to make this facility more use-friendly. However, at the moment it is commonly used for night labs of the Drake astronomy classes and public Friday lectures at eight o’clock [10].
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Drake Municipal Observatory. copyright - Drake University


References


[1] Hansen, C. (1965, March 26). Drake Observatory is Cultural Asset: Waveland Park Building—Community, Campus Astronomy Center. The Times Delphic, pp 3.
[2] Timp, M. J. (1984, April 5). Behind observatory walls. Des Moines Register, pp 11D.
[3] Hansen, C. (1965, March 26). Drake Observatory is Cultural Asset: Waveland Park Building—Community, Campus Astronomy Center. The Times Delphic, pp 3.
[4] Timp, M. J. (1984, April 5). Behind observatory walls. Des Moines Register, pp 11D.
[5] Timp, M. J. (1984, April 5). Behind observatory walls. Des Moines Register, pp 11D.
[6] Timp, M. J. (1984, April 5). Behind observatory walls. Des Moines Register, pp 11D.
[7] Waldman, H. (2000, December 1). $150,000 gift supports observatory. The Times-Delphic, pp 1.
[8] Timp, M. J. (1984, April 5). Behind observatory walls. Des Moines Register, pp 11D.
[9] Hansen, C. (1965, March 26). Drake Observatory is Cultural Asset: Waveland Park Building—Community, Campus Astronomy Center. The Times Delphic, pp 3.
[10] Hogan, E. (2009, September 24). Drake Municipal Observatory offers lecture to the community. The Times-Delphic, pp. 2.
Waveland Observatory (Des Moines Municipal Observatory)