Wish You Were Here reflects the value of postcards as tools for learning about the past, with images drawn from Manuscript Group 213, Postcard Collection, Pennsylvania State Archives.

The mysteries of space and time itself have been explored at the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh, ever since it was built to satisfy the celestial curiosity of the Allegheny Telescope Association, a group of amateur astronomy enthusiasts. In 1859 the group selected a site on the hills of North Side (at that time part of Allegheny City), an area free of city lights, providing a perfect spot for stargazing and the construction of the first single-domed observatory. A refracting telescope to permit observation of the moon and planets was installed in the building in 1861.

As costs to maintain the observatory grew burdensome, the group donated the telescope and building to the Western University of Pennsylvania, which later became the University of Pittsburgh. In 1867 the university appointed astrophysics professor Samuel P. Langley (1834–1906) as the first observatory director to lead studies of the solar system. Langley obtained more sophisticated instruments to permit precise observation of the position of the stars as they cross the celestial meridian. This allowed the observatory to mark accurate time, vital information necessary for the regulation of many industries, like railroads, for the synchronization of schedules.

Langley sold the time data to subscribers utilizing the telegraph. Subscribers paid more than $3,000 annually for the time measurements, allowing the observatory to fund research and pay staff salaries. Langley was a celebrated scientist and pioneer in the study of aerodynamics and the development of flying machines. His work at the observatory and later as secretary of the Smithsonian Institution was commemorated by the naming of Langley Air Force Base in Washington, D.C. in his honor.

In 1899 plans were made for the construction of a new observatory building to house three even more powerful telescopes. Pittsburgh architect Thorsten E. Billquist (1867–1923) of Longfellow, Alden & Harlow won the design competition to build it. Billquist worked closely with astronomer and observatory director James Edward Keeler (1857–1900) and telescope maker John Brashear (1840–1920), so that the new building would meet the unique research and equipment needs of the scientists.

The new observatory was constructed in a clearing atop Observatory Hill in the newly created Riverview Park, a 250-acre woodland overlooking the Ohio River. In 1894 the City of Pittsburgh had dedicated Riverview Park and throughout the 20th century planted trees and added trails, roads and amenities. The park was greatly enhanced by several improvement projects completed with Works Progress Administration labor from 1939 to 1942.

The Allegheny Observatory was completed in 1912 with a temple-like appearance and three distinctive domes for each of the telescopes. Sited at the peak of the hill, it is the crown jewel of Riverside Park. The Classical Revival–style building has a pedimented entrance flanked by Ionic columns. The names of famous astronomers are carved into the cornice stonework just below the roofline. A lifesize bronze statue honoring John Brashear by sculptor E. Victor sits in the inner rotunda near the opalescent glass window depicting Urania, the Greek muse of astronomy, designed by stained glass and textile artist Mary Elizabeth Tillinghast (1845–1912).

The observatory library contains more than 110,000 photographic parallax plates recording telescopic images of star fields for research into astrometry, the measurement of the position, motion and magnitude of stars and celestial bodies. The observatory’s greatest treasures are the historic telescopes themselves: a circa 1860 13-inch refractor and two telescopes built by Brashear, a 1912 30-inch Thaw refractor, still considered the most accurate telescope of its type, and a 30-inch Keeler reflecting telescope used to photograph the stars.

In the basement beneath the Keeler Memorial Reflector Telescope is a crypt containing the ashes of Keeler and Brashear, along with their wives and Keeler’s son. The crypt bears the inscription, “We have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.”

The Allegheny Observatory has been carefully preserved by the University of Pittsburgh and has been awarded several PHMC Keystone Historic Preservation grants to maintain its key elements. This landmark building remains one of the world’s major astronomical research institutions, yet also provides public access so that visitors can attend illustrated lectures and catch a glimpse of the stars and galaxies beyond.

Allegheny Observatory was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and the entire Riverview Park was listed in 2021. A Pennsylvania Historical Marker honoring the observatory was erected at the site in 1999.

 

Pamela W. Reilly is a historic preservation specialist in the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office.