Observatory Work Showcases Historic Construction of Landmark Building

May 16, 2023 By Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu Mike Mather, mike.mather@virginia.edu

For the first time in more than 60 years, visitors to the University of Virginia’s McCormick Observatory can peek at parts of the original structure that date to the building’s construction in 1883.

As part of planned renovations, the canvas that covers the interior of the dome has been removed, revealing observatory craftsmanship that was state-of-the-art during the Chester A. Arthur presidency and built so well it has served generations of sky watchers, including present-day UVA astronomers.

While “the telescope is still in excellent shape,” according to astronomy professor Ed Murphy, “the building and the dome are showing their age and are in need of some restoration and care.”

Photographer Sanjay Suchak documented the work that is presenting a window into the fabled building’s history.

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A better look at the inside of the dome's steel support system
The dome’s interior is made of galvanized steel supported by steel ribs. It is normally covered with canvas, but like other parts of the dome, the canvas has become worn with age and stained by leaks. A renovation project is underway to restore the building.
A close view of the Warner & Swasey Company of Cleveland logo
The dome’s hot-dipped galvanized steel sheets were put in place in 1883 by the Warner & Swasey Company of Cleveland. Thin wood strips cover the steel ribs so the canvas can be tacked into place.
Close up of handwritten notes that are over 100 years old
The removal of the canvas revealed workers’ hand-written notations from more than a century ago. The canvas was last replaced around 60 years ago, which means no current member of the UVA Astronomy Department has been afforded this view of the dome’s interior.

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Sanjay Suchak

Photographer Office of University Communications