A brief history of the Fuertes Observatory at Cornell
by Phillip David Nicholson, Professor of Astronomy, with assistance from Jennifer Bailard ('09) and
Shianne Beer ('08).
Many Cornell alumni have fond memories of their first encounter with the mysteries of the night sky
at Fuertes Observatory, located on a grassy knoll overlooking the north shore of Beebe Lake. Although
the present building has stood on this site since 1917, many people are surprised to learn that it is in fact
the fourth or fifth astronomical observatory on the Cornell campus. The first, albeit rather primitive,
wooden observatory building was built between 1876 and 1882 and was located on the Arts Quad
where now stands the north end of Goldwin Smith Hall. The main impetus for its construction came
from Prof. Estevan Antonio Fuertes, the Dean and first professor of Civil Engineering at Cornell and a
devotee of practical, laboratory-based learning. Throughout the Fall term, engineering seniors used the
observatory’s telescopes to measure stars for calculations of time and position. Their summer was
spent in field work, surveying the Finger Lakes.
Born in Puerto Rico, educated in fine arts in
Barcelona and in engineering at Rensselaer
Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, where he
graduated in 1857, Prof. Fuertes was a
successful civil engineer who had worked on
public infrastructure in Puerto Rico, on the
Croton aqueduct for New York City, and on
early Panama canal surveys for the US
Government. He was lured to Cornell in 1873
by Andrew Dickson White’s vision of a new
university where practical training would coexist
with traditional academic learning. Fuertes
schooled many generations of civil engineers
in the art of astronomical observations,
necessary to establish accurate geographical surveys as well as time-keeping in
the days before GPS satellites and radio time signals. He was a much-loved figure
at Cornell, nicknamed “The Mogue” because of his supposed resemblance to the
Mogul emperor of India whose likeness appeared on cigarette packs of the day.
His house stood on the site of the present Statler Hotel, and he organized musical
recitals at neaby Sage College in the evenings. Cornell’s famed Ornithological
Laboratory is named for his son, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, a Cornell graduate of 1897.
Estevan retired due to ill-health in 1902 after 29 years of teaching and died early
the following year.
Demolished in 1892 to make way for the Dairy Building, the first of Cornell’s
Agriculture College buildings, the original observatory was rebuilt by 1896 on or
near what is now the site of Day Hall, but apparently it remained a rather
ramshackle wooden structure which was deemed a “standing reproach to the
campus”. Around 1902, trustee General
Alfred C. Barnes offered to provide a more
suitable building to house the observatory
and its geodetic equipment.
Contemporary postcards show a
handsome brick building, 80 feet by 20 feet
and topped with three domes, which was
completed in September 1903.2 It was
situated across East Avenue, on an
eminence to the south of the old
Veterinary College, on what is now the site
of Barton Hall. The Observatory boasted
a 5-inch equatorial telescope, two transit
telescopes for timing and stellar position
measurements, as well as more specialized
surveying instruments, an astronomical
clock and a spacious “computing room”.
Unfortunately, this fine facility was
demolished in 1914 or 1915 to make way
for the huge new drill hall.
Soon afterwards, however, plans were laid for a new Fuertes Observatory, to be
located on the Hasbrouck poultry farm to the north of Beebe Lake. Construction
was undertaken by the Cornell Superintendant of Buildings and Grounds in April
1916, following a design by Prof. of Architecture, L. P Burnham and under the
supervision of the Department of Civil Engineering. Of concrete block and stucco
construction, 87 by 18 feet with a 24-foot diameter steel dome, the building was
completed in the Fall of 1917 at a total cost of $20,000. Support for a future 12-
inch telescope was provided by a set of four 30-foot-long steel I-beams built into
the structure, rather than the conventional masonry pier. Initially the old 5-inch
equatorial telescope was installed in the dome, but in 1919 Prof. Irving P Church,
head of the Civil Engineering department and another afficionado of practical
astronomy, procured two 12-inch glass blanks declared surplus by the Yerkes
Chicago. The two-element lens was
polished by the
well-known firm of
Brashear & Co and
delivered to Cornell
construct a suitable
raised from among
alumni and in
January 1922 a
contract was given
to the Warner and
of Cleveland, Ohio,
who had built both
the Lick 36-inch
and Yerkes 40-inch
present 12-inch telescope with its German equatorial mount was installed in
October 1922 and officially dedicated on June 15, 1923 as the “Irving Porter Church
Memorial Telescope.” A graduate of Cornell’s early civil engineering program in
1873, Professor Church had retired in 1916 after 40 years of service to the University.
Author of a widely-used textbook on “The Mechanics of Engineering”, he was
also considered a co-founder, along with Estevan Fuertes, of the present-day
concept of technical education. He died in 1931. In 1964 the Irving Porter Church
professorship in engineering was endowed in his honor, and — fittingly — the
present occupant of this chair is our own Prof. of Astronomy Joseph A. Burns.
On its ground floor, the new observatory housed a transit room with four concrete
piers, a classroom, a computing room, an office and secure storage rooms, as well
as display cases for astronomical photographs and lantern slides, while in the
basement there was
a temperature-controlled room
windows for the
for geodetic lab
darkroom and a
room for the
previously housed in
Lincoln Hall. In
addition to the 12-
inch telescope, it
was equipped with
telescopes, a zenith
instrument and an
altazimuth, as well
as assorted sextants,
equipment. In later
years, a mirror-grinding shop was installed in the basement.
Much of the old optical equipment remains in storage at the
observatory, although the best pieces have been refurbished
and are on display in Snee Hall.
Introductory laboratory classes in astronomy continue to be
taught at Fuertes, which has remained largely unchanged for
over 80 years. In the 1960s, responsibility for the Observatory
was transferred to the new Center for Radio and Space Research
(CRSR). In the 1980s the original leaky roof with its clamshell
doors above the “transit room” in the eastern wing of the building
was replaced by a conventional fixed roof. At some earlier date
the original coal-fired furnace, reputedly tended by a live-in
student, was replaced by a gas heater.
However, the campus itself has grown immensely over this
period, and what must once have been a remote site with dark
skies is now hemmed in by the residential and dining facilities of
North Campus, while the southern sky is regularly spoilt by the
lights of Schoelkopf stadium. As a result, it is now impossible to
see the Milky Way from the rooftop deck at Fuertes, or even
most of the fainter naked-eye stars. Only the moon, planets
and the brightest stars remain visible to the unaided eye.
In the future, the Astronomy Department would like to construct a new facility for upper-level observing labs at a dark site, perhaps on Mt Pleasant adjacent to our
existing Hartung-Boothroyd Observatory
, or perhaps in the Cornell Plantations as part of a proposed Gateway Center off NYS Route 366. But its convenience for
undergraduates, appeal to alumni and long history all argue for maintaining Fuertes as a functioning observatory well into the foreseeable future.
The authors would like to acknowledge their debt to previous
research on the history of Fuertes by Brian McLeod, Jeff Regester and
Eric Weisstein, all past-presidents of the Cornell Astronomical Society.
For at least 40 years, and perhaps much longer, the CAS has
operated Friday Night open houses at the Observatory, inspiring
generations of eager star-gazers of all ages.
(1) Hewitt (1905), on p. 342, reports the site of the second observatory to have
been that now occupied by Stimson Hall,
built in 1903 to house the Ithaca division of the Cornell Medical School,
but this appears to be contradicted by contemporary
campus maps reproduced by Parsons (1968) on p. 203, which
place it further south. It is even possible that there were two
observatories during this period.
(2) Although labelled “Barnes Observatory” on Charles Lowrie’s 1903
plan of future development on the Cornell Campus,
by 1914 it was known officially as the “Fuertes Astronomical
Observatory and Geodetic Laboratory”.