One hundred years ago, Denison President Emory J. Hunt laid a small box in the cornerstone of one of Denison’s oldest buildings. In it sat a 1909 Adytum, a financial report of the university, a book of views of campus, three Denisonians, photographs of President Hunt and his wife, photographs of Ambrose Swasey and his wife, and a 1909 Newark Advocate that referenced the building in which the box would live–Swasey Observatory.
The money to build that observatory, which celebrates its centennial this year, was presented to Denison by Ambrose Swasey of Cleveland, one of the college’s most noted and loyal trustees (and yes, the same Swasey who gave the school the landmark chapel 15 years later). At the time, the Astronomy Department was struggling with mediocre telescopes, and thanks to Swasey their wishes for a state-of-the-art observatory came true. The building was to house the most up-todate equipment, including a revolving dome, equatorial, transit, and zenith telescopes, chronographs (special time-keeping devices), and the standard astronomical clocks. But Swasey’s hope was that the building not just be useful, it had to be beautiful, too, so it was built with white marble walls and marble floors. The observatory was completed in time for the fall semester of 1909, much to the delight of John L. Gilpatrick and the rest of the Astronomy Department.
The observatory has since undergone only one major renovation: In the summer of 1969, the dome was replaced and dark rooms were added to accommodate the rising number of students enrolled in astronomy classes and those interested in the growing field of astrophotography. During that renovation, the inside was weatherized and completely rewired for ventilation, heating, and lighting. Since then, the observatory has served its purpose well, giving classes, labs, and public open houses access to the skies above the Hill.