Evalicia Chavez — “UM’s Detroit Observatory: Reopening, Reviving, and Redesigning”
I applied for a job as a docent at the Detroit Observatory on a whim. Very quickly, it became a major component of my day-to-day life. I helped to update historic campus tours and design new ones, give lecture-style presentations, and facilitate the various (and often unrelated) events that have occupied the observatory and its new addition. I found my own passions within the research I did, especially surrounding the preservation and various restorations of the observatory.
In 1854, the Detroit Observatory was constructed atop a hill on the University of Michigan’s campus. Henry Tappan, the first president of the university, had two goals for this building: to establish the university as a true research school, following those in Germany (then Prussia), and to standardize time for Michigan, largely for the sake of preventing head-on train collisions. The observatory was home to many esteemed astronomers of the 19th century, one of the largest refracting telescopes in the world, and the first academic publication to come out of U-M.
Unfortunately, the observatory has spent a large portion of its time at U-M being closed to visitors, sitting almost unnoticed atop a hill in the northeast corner of Central Campus. The observatory was renovated for the sake of public accessibility and historic preservation in the late 1990s but was closed to visitors again in 2019 for the construction of a new addition. Throughout its lifetime, the observatory has occupied various forms, with assorted additions having been added to the original building. Unfortunately, these additions have all been lost to time and the ever-present expansion of the campus.
The observatory reopened in Spring 2022, after many, many months, and I had the wonderful opportunity of aiding in these efforts as one of the student docents. I started at the observatory just before the official reopening, so I played a role in shaping our programming and the experience of each visitor who came through. As we prepared to reopen, and as we continue to expand our programming, we hope to not only bring more visitors in—but to further connect with the University and the broader community surrounding the observatory.
While preparing for the reopening, I became fascinated by the near-total demolition of the observatory that occurred in the summer of 1976, after which only the original building remained, and the fight for preservation that preceded this. It was so interesting to look at the history of this building, where it went from being one of the most important features of early U-M and setting time for the state of Michigan and parts of the Midwest in the late 19th century, to being abandoned and becoming a venue for trespassers and squatters in the early 1970s.
This—combined with our efforts to bring in current students—led me to propose a themed event: 70s Night. For this event, alongside fun 1970s-themed activities and attire, we combined an era of utmost importance for the observatory with the aforementioned period of negligence for a night of interesting and largely unheard Ann Arbor history. The multipurpose room normally reserved for lectures and roundtables was blasting space-themed music from the 1970s with a disco ball hanging from the ceiling and, upstairs, the visitors were told stories of the 1870s celestial explorations conducted from the observatory’s dome. Here, we successfully reconnected a former gem of the campus with its current occupants through history, astronomy, and stories of what once were.
Evalicia Chavez is a junior at the University of Michigan studying anthropology and art history alongside museum studies. Academically, she is incredibly interested in museums and contemporary art. Outside of academics, she likes long walks and longer runs.
Read the Michigan Daily‘s recap of 70s Night here.