The Georgetown University Francis J. Heyden Observatory recently underwent repairs to return the building to its full functionality.
Heyden Observatory, the third oldest observatory in the country and a national landmark, had been in need of repairs and improvements for a number of years. Last year, the observatory failed to win the Partners in Preservation Program community-based contest that would have restored the site with a $1 million grant. The site did win $5,000 for its participation, in addition to a further $5,000 in recognition of campaigning efforts.
The need for repairs to fix the observatory became urgent when the observatory dome’s rotating function broke last May, rendering the facility unusable to the Georgetown University Astronomical Society.
“We couldn’t use the main telescope, which is the whole point of the observatory,” GUAS Secretary Nick Childress (COL ’14) said. “And I think what most people are interested in when they come to the meeting for the first time, that’s what they want to do.”
Although the broken telescope inconvenienced GUAS, the main focus of the recent repairs for Georgetown’s Planning and Facilities staff was the observatory’s lead paint.
Vice President for Planning and Facilities Management Robin Morey said they started to replace the paint on the observatory’s base around four months ago.
Communication between members of GUAS and Planning and Facilities staff, who are in charge of campus maintenance, remained minimal, although GUAS had been attempting to communicate the need for repairs to the observatory since last May.
“We were trying to get in touch with facilities and get the ball rolling on fixing [the dome], not really having much success until maybe a month or two ago,” GUAS President Daniel Dylewsky (COL ’15) said. “And then we had also spoken to a professor in the physics department who’s also our faculty adviser, and he kind of helped us out with that. Then it just kind of out of the blue got repaired one day and they told us, ‘Hey, it’s fixed.’”
Morey emphasized that the staff followed typical procedure in communicating the need for repairs.
“When we do certain hazardous materials abatement, you have to do notifications of the area and the extent of the area because you don’t want someone walking into that. So we had to do onsite notifications of caution, hazardous materials abatement underway, that kind of thing,” Morey said.
The observatory, which is usually kept locked, is open to the public during GUAS meetings. However, because of the facility’s limited access and state of constant disrepair, Dylewsky sees it as an underutilized resource.
“It’s really cool to be able to see you’re looking through the same telescope and the same lens they used 150 years ago. I do feel a lot of people don’t really know about it,” Dylewsky said. “So often we have people come to meetings and say, ‘Oh wow, I never even knew this place existed, and this is so cool,’ so it is always rewarding when people do that, but it would be great if we could have more exposure and have more people come up and see what the building has to offer.”
In terms of future improvements, the university’s financial ability to make repairs remains a question.
“Generally, the way things get funded is there’s a whole bunch of requirements and then less resources to execute those requirements, and we have to go through a prioritization process,” Morey said.
The feasibility of using the observatory for academic purposes is not very significant, especially as Georgetown, which once had a prestigious research graduate astronomy program, no longer has instructional needs for the observatory. Georgetown offers one entry-level astronomy course in the physics department.
Professor Wesley Mathews, who teaches the astronomy course and advises GUAS, could not be reached for comment.
“If we could just have some more classes at least for undergrads, it would be nice,” Childress said. “I would like that to happen because I think it would help give more motives to fix the observatory — and not just fix it, but upgrade it.”