The Original Perkins Observatory in Delaware

Wesleyan University Student Observatory

No doubt we’ve all experienced the following: Having lived in or even often travelled through a place for years, we learn about something wonderful or intriguing we had no idea existed. This is more surprising (and galling, for a documentary photographer) when we have driven right by something many, many times, never knowing what we were missing. Such was the case for me with this, the former Perkins Observatory at Ohio Wesleyan University.

Wesleyan Student Observatory

Wander in to photograph an observatory, photograph the doorknob instead.

In my defense, the observatory sits on a hill high above the road (it’s not far from the darling octagonal filling station in Delaware), and I don’t remember how we learned of its existence, but after stopping at my favourite local nursery, we stopped in to take a peek.

I’ve not photographed an observatory before, and haven’t been to one in ages, so it was a sort of weird experience, not knowing what to expect (my husband told me about it, so we just stopped by without my even knowing what the building looked like). Having been there once I may go back to get more images, just for fun. I’d like better shots of the front, back, and sides. In other words, everything. Are women ever satisfied?

Wesleyan Student ObservatoryNow, there is a new Perkins Observatory; this is the original. The new one is quite beautiful, if we’re to judge by the photos, and I hope to get there eventually, but the allure of an old, weathered building is undeniable. Now, this serves as the student observatory. Apparently co-eds cannot be trusted with expensive telescopes.

Built in 1896, this observatory was named to honour Hiram Perkins, a professor of mathematics and astronomy (fields which go quite hand-in-hand). Mr. Perkins had a rather interesting life: a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan in 1857, he began teaching at the University right away. Unsurprisingly, when the War Between The States erupted, Perkins temporarily ‘retired’ and went to enlist with the Union Army, but due to his 6’4″, 97-pound frame, was rejected as physically unfit. Still wishing to aid in the effort, he went back home to help raise hogs for the troops on his family farm. Having applied his knowledge to hog farming, Perkins ended up making him quite a bit of money by the time the war ended, and returned to OWU with his wife.

Wesleyan Student Observatory

Cracked, peeling paint is something I find very difficult to resist!

The couple, apparently unable to have children, lived modestly right next to the school, which meant his wartime earnings and professor’s salary grew and grew; as so many wealthy men of the era did, he ended up giving most of it away. In this case, benefactor Hiram Perkins, heavily influenced by his devout Methodist faith, donated most of his money toward the building of an astronomical observatory, which is the building seen here; it is actually right next to the home Perkins and his wife lived in.

Wesleyan Student Observatory

Oh, that marvellous crackled paint on the molding!

The major observatory was built in 1923, also heavily funded by Mr. Perkins, who donated $250,000 of the $350,000 necessary to build it. Though he was present and even turned the first shovel at the groundbreaking in 1923, he was also 90 years old at the time, and passed before seeing the grander observatory completed.

Green Bluebird House

Even the birds have a home at the Student Observatory.

The 1923 building is now known as Perkins Observatory and the original, 1896 building is the Student Observatory, complete with 9-1/2 inch refracting telescope. The twice-used name does make finding the original building a little frustrating, but it is next to the Stuyvesant Building on West William Street.

Triplicate: Wesleyan University Student Observatory


It’s a pretty little Classical Revival building, though maybe in need of a little more affection. In the alcove near the back door is a pile of cigarette butts about six inches deep! Blech. I suppose if it were open to the public for programs it would be in slightly better shape, but it is the big Perkins Observatory that draws all of the visitors now.

The Student Observatory is on the National Register of Historic Places along with several other OWU buildings. Amusingly, there are student gardens on one side of the building! I’m all for that, of course, though it did make me giggle. At least they’ll know the exact path of the sun over their beds!

Wesleyan University Student Observatory

Unfortunately, there are no old photographs I may directly place here, but I did find this undated image of the Student Observatory and a few of Hiram Perkins himself! He was a lanky fellow indeed, as you can see in this photo of him teaching a classroom full of young ladies and fellows. Also, if you scroll down on this page, you’ll find a few picture postcards of the now-Student Observatory (as well as many other Wesleyan University buildings).

That concludes our brief visit to the exterior of the observatory—as you can tell, the sun wasn’t in the best spot for the front, but as always, your intrepid, be-skirted photographer did her very best. 😉

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