Campus & Community

Light-years better: Restoration begins at historic observatory

It’s taking a team of modern professionals to preserve the past this summer at the University of Denver’s historic Chamberlin Observatory.

With the help of a state grant, the Denver Astronomical Society and even the Observatory Park community itself, DU has embarked on a $250,000 restoration project that has been years in the making.

Project manager Linda Lautenbach says the observatory’s doors and windows are original equipment, dating back to the completion of the facility in 1894. In addition, the antique-style of masonry back then employed a very soft mortar, which can be ravaged over time by the elements.

“The building needs some loving,” Lautenbach says. “It’s an important building to the University because it’s one of our faces to the public. A lot of events are held there, and the public is always coming out, from the Astronomical Society events to Cub Scouts and school tours.”

In addition, the observatory is home to a fully functional antique telescope, and DU students regularly use the facility for classes.

Located just a few blocks east of the main campus in Observatory Park, the observatory is considered a Denver landmark. DU Astronomy Professor Robert Stencel has long been a champion of efforts to preserve and restore both the building and the telescope. In 1994 it was placed on the Denver Landmark list and received a $100,000 grant for emergency repairs.

“We are fortunate to live in a time where there is appreciation for special old buildings and their original purposes,” Stencel says. “DU’s historic Chamberlin Observatory represents both high aspirations and sustainable, durable architecture. Thus, the ongoing restoration process is an affirmation of academic and cultural goals that add to Denver’s unique civic character.”

Lautenbach says that in addition to restoration of the windows, doors and masonry work, observers will notice a new coat of paint on exterior highlights, interior fire detection systems and other work. Crews are also examining masonry under the building after painstakingly removing the front steps and labeling each one so they can be returned to their proper place.

And just to prove that anything can happen when crews set out to make adjustments on a building as old as the observatory, workers in June stumbled across a honeybee colony lodged under a balcony floor. Rather than exterminate the colony, crews called in beekeepers Danny Steckman and Perry Welch with Beautiful Things swarm removal, who collected the bees and moved them to a more appropriate location.

Lautenbach says the assembled team of Slaterpaull Architects, Empire Carpentry, and Spectrum General Contractors represents years of expertise in historic restoration.

The work is slated for completion by October, but Lautenbach says protecting DU’s historic buildings is an ongoing effort and there is always more work on the horizon.

The Chamberlin Observatory was designed by DU’s first astronomy professor, Herbert Howe. The original construction drawings by noted Denver architect Robert Roeschlaub are still held in the University archives collection in Penrose Library on the DU campus. The dome houses a 20 inch aperture Clark-Saegmuller refractor, which saw first light in July 1894.

Information about the observatory and a schedule of events and celestial happenings is online.

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