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Restoring an Old Beauty

Mercury Summer 2012 Table of Contents

by Mary Ann Upton

Whitin College observatory

A view of the refurbished Whitin Observatory. The glass-enclosed addition is visible to the left of the main building. Image courtesy Peter Vanderwarker.

Whitin Observatory has served the students of Wellesley College (Wellesley, Massachusetts) for more than 100 years. In 2010, after years of planning, it received a much needed renovation and expansion, reinforcing its reputation as a teaching observatory of unsurpassed quality. This is the story of its legacy and transformation.

The first astronomy course -- Applied Physics -- was offered to the women of Wellesley in 1879. Twenty years later, a fortunate opportunity propelled it from a single class to a formidable astronomy program. A Fitz/Clark 12-inch refractor, in use in Brooklyn at the time, became available for purchase at a bargain price. Inspired by her friend, Professor Sarah Whiting, the newly elected trustee Mrs. J. C. Whitin gave the gift of the powerful telescope and a modest, neoclassical building clad in white marble to house the instrument. According to college historians:

This work was done in the spirit of the founder of the College, who believed that beauty is essential to the highest development of the student…. Mrs. Whitin expressed the same idea when she said, in answer to a remark that a rug would not be necessary in a laboratory: “You and Miss Hayes can attend to the science; it will be good for the girls to put their feet on an India rug.”

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