Positioned atop a small promontory, this brick and stone observatory holds a rich yet unseen history. The building consists of three two-story wings to the north, east, and south, and has an octagonal center which supports its massive copper observation dome. With its unique shape, arched windows, and grand staircase, the edifice stands in stark contrast to the structures that surround it. Completed in 1865, it is the oldest of more than 100 buildings located on an esteemed college campus nestled in the mid-Valley. Aside from its unique physical characteristics, the observatory is most notable for its first director and inhabitant, Maria Mitchell.
Similar to other influential figures of her caliber, Mitchell was a woman of firsts. Born in 1818, she is widely recognized as the first female astronomer in the United States. She was the first female elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences — a clear testament to the importance of her contributions in her field of study. She was also the first professor — male or female — to teach at the academic institution in which this observatory is located. She was even the first American woman to discover a comet (often called “Miss Mitchell’s Comet”), a feat which earned her a gold medal prize and worldwide fame. Despite all of these accomplishments, Mitchell remained humble, working as an astronomer, researcher, and professor until her death in 1889, after which she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame. If those credentials aren’t enough to prove her prominence, a crater on the moon is named the “Mitchell” after the Valley’s own empiricist.
Mitchell served as the first director of this observatory from 1865 until 1888, and lived there for the duration of her managerial years, earning the building a spot on the register of National Historic Landmarks. More than a century after her death, a new observatory was constructed and Mitchell’s was transformed into classrooms and office space. The renovations restored her instruments and documents (some of which remain in the building, others were donated to the Smithsonian), and created a miniature Maria Mitchell museum, which includes customized wallpaper decorated with quotes, images, and scientific accomplishments that promote Mitchell’s legacy.
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