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Hidden Treasures: The Drexel Home of Philadelphia’s Largest Telescope

April 15, 2019

An edited photo of the Joseph R. Lynch observatory.
An edited photo of the Joseph R. Lynch observatory.

If you enter Drexel University’s Main Building, take the stairs in the Great Court to the third floor, walk towards Curtis Hall (go past the A.J. Drexel Picture Gallery on your right), follow a long hallway, go through a set of double doors, continue past the bathrooms and vending machines and a study room, go through another set of double doors, immediately take a left into the stairwell and climb up seven flights of stairs … you’ll end up at one of Drexel’s true “hidden treasures.”

It’s the Joseph R. Lynch Observatory. And it’s on the roof of Curtis Hall.

Mostly concealed to all but those flying over the University City Campus in the sky, the 15-foot-tall white dome of an observatory holds the biggest telescope in the city. It’s a 16-inch Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, and the size of its mirror makes it the largest in Philadelphia; for comparison, the Franklin Institute’s Joel N. Bloom Observatory has an 8” Schmidt-Cassegrain.

A 2014 aerial photograph of Drexel's University City Campus, with the observatory circled in red.

The University’s observatory is used as a learning and training tool for Drexel students and a way to connect the public with astronomy through monthly “open house” nights.

“We like to describe astronomy as the ‘gateway science,’” said Gordon Richards, PhD, a professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Arts and Sciences who has been the director of the observatory since 2007. “So anything that we can do to sort of encourage that is good. And the observatory gives us an opportunity to do that in a different way than some other fields might.”

Two physics classes are taught using the observatory, which can only fit a handful of students or visitors at a time (there is plenty of patio space outside of it for people to observe the night sky with their eyes and portable telescopes). There’s “Physics 131: Survey of the Universe,” which provides an overview of modern astronomy and is open to non-science majors; Richards is teaching it this term. And students in the major can take “Physics 232: Observational Astrophysics,” which teaches physics majors how to use telescopes because “anybody that wants to do research in astronomy is going to benefit from taking that class,” according to Richards. It used to be taught once every other year but became an annual class due to high demand.

The dome of the Joseph R. Lynch observatory.

Plus, the observatory is open to the public through an “open house” night on the first Wednesday of every month except in the summer, and with weather and atmosphere permitting. And to accommodate more sky-watchers than the observatory can hold, the graduate students in the department also created a monthly astronomy night at Drexel’s Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships for neighbors and community members to watch the night sky from portable telescopes.

Unfortunately, even the biggest telescope in a huge city like Philadelphia gets affected by the light pollution. Stars can be hard to see, but Saturn, Jupiter, the moon and Mars, to a lesser extent, can be identified. Neighboring buildings can cause problems, though — like the FMC Tower, which blocks the southeastern part of the sky that Jupiter passes through, and the “Drexel University” sign on University Crossings that Richards says is brighter than the full moon. He has asked nearby light polluters to turn off their lights for the open houses, just once a month, but hasn’t had any success.

Of course, when the observatory was built several decades ago, the FMC Tower and Drexel sign and other skyscrapers weren’t around to create difficulties. But that doesn’t mean that past Dragons had an easy time observing the sky — or getting to the observatory.

A portrait of Leonard D. Cohen, PhD, in 1964, when he started working at the then-Drexel Institute of Technology. Photo courtesy Drexel University Archives.

Since the ’60s, the physics department had been offering stargazing opportunities on the roofs of Drexel buildings, first with a 12-inch telescope on the top of the Basic Science Building (which became Stratton Hall in 1967) in that decade, and then the telescopes and some form of an observatory that has been on the top of Curtis Hall since the ’70s. And it was all thanks to the passion of a physics professor whose area of expertise had nothing to do with astronomy.  

Leonard D. Cohen, PhD, was hired as an assistant professor in physics in the then-Drexel Institute of Technology’s then-College of Engineering and Science in 1964. He had been employed by General Electric Co. for five years as an experimental reactor physicist, theoretical reactor physicist and space radiation physicist, and came to Drexel to teach atomic physics and nuclear physics and develop the Institute’s nuclear engineering program. But he was an amateur astronomer, and described his plans in a 1966 issue of The Triangle, Drexel’s independent student newspaper, to start an astronomy club and introduce an astronomy course to the department’s curriculum — both of which would live on at Drexel during the 35 years he taught here and in the 22 years after he retired in 1997.

By 1969, there was a Drexel Astronomy Club (with Cohen as the faculty advisor) that was up and running and using a new Celestron 10-inch telescope. Press releases housed in Drexel’s University Archives note that they had attempted to photograph the flight of Apollo 10 in May 1969 and, two months later, Apollo 11 on its way to the moon.

The Astronomy Club featured in Drexel's 1968 yearbook. Photo courtesy Drexel University Archives.

By 1979, 15 years after Cohen started at Drexel, two astronomy courses had been offered every year for many years. According to a 1979 Triangle article, an observatory had been built on the top of Curtis Hall by then, and it consisted of “a shack and a dome with a rotating roof” that was used by the Drexel Astronomy Society (of which Cohen was still the faculty advisor) as well as physics classes and interested faculty. The story also noted that the observatory used several telescopes built by Drexel faculty and students, the largest of which was a “Celestron 10, a reflector with a ten-inch [sic] mirror that a student constructed during the summer.” 

That article noted the same difficulties that Drexel Dragons would still be experiencing 40 years later. The city light made viewing nebulae and galaxies difficult, and planets, the moon, star clusters and double stars could be mostly observed; once a month, the Astronomy Society ventured into “the country” to observe the skies. A Triangle article published the next year noted an open house would be held by the Astronomy Society — a tradition that is still kept in 2019.

By 1992, the observatory had been raised on a platform when construction was done on the roof of Curtis Hall, though because the platform and stairs hadn’t been secured and it hadn’t yet been wired for electricity, it wasn’t functional when a Triangle article was printed about “trying to find that counfounded [sic] observatory,” as it was titled. Cohen, identified as “the man in the know about the observatory,” discussed the 10-inch diameter Celestron telescope and the ambient lights making it difficult for deep space work, and was listed as the main contact for Dragons interested in what was identified as the “Astronomy Club,” an astronomy class or the observatory in general.

A contact sheet of photos from a 1985 photo shoot featuring Leonard R. Cohen, PhD, and a student in front of the observatory with a telescope. Photo courtesy Drexel University Archives.

After 35 years at Drexel, Cohen retired in the 1996–1997 academic year. In his absence, student interest and use of the observatory waned for several years, and a Drexel astronomy club or society disappeared from view.

But then, the heavens aligned and certain plans were set in motion to bring back learners to the observatory and make it better than before.

In 1999, Joseph R. Lynch, who had graduated from Drexel’s thenpCollege of Engineering (which housed the physics department then) in 1958 with a master’s of science degree in physics, had taken out a gift annuity with Drexel to benefit the University’s Department of Physics. According to his obituary, Lynch was a World War II veteran and had “worked on the space probes to Jupiter and Venus, as well as the first rocket to the moon.” He had retired as an aerospace engineer from General Electric, which donated a $50,000 matching gift in 2001. The Physics Department used the matching gift to renovate the observatory, which was renamed in Lynch’s honor.

In 2001, David Goldberg, PhD, associate department head for undergraduate studies and a professor in the Department of Physics in the College of Arts and Sciences, started teaching at Drexel and became the director of the observatory. At that same time, some of the students were interested in bringing back a Drexel astronomy club, though the observatory dome was still in disuse, hadn’t been renovated and contained only a few small telescopes with 8-inch mirrors.

Joseph R. Lynch was unable to attend the 2003 ceremony, but his daughters Carol Chaney and Susan Wright did. They are pictured, center, with College of Arts and Sciences Dean Donna Murasko, PhD, (left) and then-Department of Physics head Michel Vallières, PhD. Photo courtesy Kenneth H. Goldman.

With the funding from Lynch’s gift, the department purchased the 16-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope still used today, as well as a small digital camera used to take photos through the telescope. The donation also paid for the construction of a fenced-in deck (which was later rebuilt following more repairs on the roof) outside of the observatory so people could stand there to stargaze with or without the help of portable telescopes. A pier was also constructed to securely hold the telescope so it wouldn’t be connected to the floor of the observatory and thus wouldn’t be moved around when people walked around.

There was no elevator to the observatory (then as now) so everything had to be carried down all those hallways and up all those stairs.  

Wolfgang Nadler, who had been working as a systems engineer in the College of Arts and Sciences, revitalized the observatory. He removed and refurbished the drive motor and rollers on the dome (used to turn it to see the parts of the night sky), designed the deck and helped install  internet on the roof, among other renovations.  

“We really wanted to make it functional and safe,” said Nadler, who has worked for Drexel for 39 years, even staying on as an occasional worker after retiring in 2016, and just last fall replaced the screws that hold the walls of the observatory’s dome.

Senior Associate Vice President of Presidential Initiatives Kenneth H. Goldman (left) with College of Arts and Sciences Dean Donna Murasko, PhD, (center) and Dave Goldberg, PhD (right) at the observatory's dedication ceremony in 2003. Photo credit: Maryann Fitzpatrick. Photo courtesy Wolfgang Nadler.

A dedication ceremony was held in October 2003 to officially commemorate the opening of the improved observatory. Lynch’s daughters Carol Chaney and Susan Wright came to Drexel to celebrate the opening in their father’s absence. Over 80 people attended the event, and Mars and a binary star system were able to be seen through the new telescope.

With that, the observatory was up and running again. Goldberg started holding the monthly observatory nights that Richards now organizes. Michael S. Vogley, PhD, associate department head for graduate studies and a professor in the Department of Physics, developed the Physics 232 class still taught today. An astrophysics minor was added to the physics offerings. And the observatory started being used for important celestial events, like the 2004 transit of Venus when the planet passed in front of the sun for the first time in over 120 years.

“Very quickly, the observatory became a central part of the department,” said Goldberg.

Gordon Richards, PhD, (in a black coat) at the observatory in 2009 with graduate students Alf Whitehead (in the white jacket) and Coleman Krawczyk (in blue with hat). Photo credit: Vishal Kasliwal. Photo courtesy Gordon Richards.

Now, many of the traditions established with the 2003 reopening of the observatory — and the groundwork laid down by Cohen — have continued to this day. For the solar eclipse in 2017, members of department set up solar telescopes to be used at a special viewing party on Perelman Plaza. And for years, graduate and undergraduate students in the department have helped run the public house nights and set up telescopes in the Korman Quad to encourage interest.

“The observatory fits really well with our experiential learning,” said Richards. “Even though Philadelphia is not the best place to use a telescope, I think there’s still a lot of benefit to having the observatory. And like I said, astronomy is the ‘gateway science’ — it’s how we get people hooked. Getting people up to the observatory is part of that.”

Interested in visiting an open house? The next one (weather permitting) is scheduled for April 17 at the Dornsife Center — check the observatory’s website for day-of updates. Public open house nights are usually held the first Wednesday of every month during the academic year. The observatory’s website will also show the most recent dates and times for all open house nights.

This story was published in the spring 2019 issue of Drexel Quarterly.