The Detroit Observatory was built in 1854 and quickly became the centerpiece of scientific advancement at U-M. Now, 168 years later and after a three-year expansion project, it is ready for the U-M community and public to again explore the stars.
The observatory will launch the next phase of its Michigan legacy with a symposium on April 8 titled “Seeing Anew: The Detroit Observatory Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.”
A series of virtual panels will explore the history of the observatory, its impact on American astronomy, and its new educational potential as a result of the 7,000-square-foot addition. Advance registration is required.
That evening, astrophysicist Brian Nord will be the keynote speaker for a discussion about the role of science in society, how humans organize themselves to learn, and other issues. The observatory also will be open for in-person activities as part of Statewide Astronomy Night, which includes viewing the stars through the observatory’s original Fitz Refracting Telescope.
“The observatory can become a dynamic center for engaging U-M’s history as well as astronomy and science both historic and contemporary,” said Gary Krenz, director of the observatory.
“It’s a magical place where visitors will be able to explore U-M history, thrill to look through telescopes that were an important part of that history, and discover some of the observatory’s legacy in exciting developments of 21st-century research.”
The university’s first president, Henry Philip Tappan, envisioned the observatory as a facility that would place U-M at the forefront of scientific research. Tappan commissioned the Fitz Refracting Telescope, one of the largest in the world when it was installed in 1857.
The observatory immediately contributed to the academic prestige of the university. Measurements made at the observatory were used to calibrate precise timepieces for local banks and rail stations, making Ann Arbor run on “Detroit Observatory Time.” U-M faculty members discovered and named more than a dozen asteroids.
Over time, however, the expansion of the university and the city made the Detroit Observatory’s location less and less ideal for serious academic work. The building fell into disuse after the astronomy department moved to the Dennison Building in 1963.
While the space survived with its telescopes intact, it was often overlooked, inaccessible and underutilized with respect to its educational and historic value. In 1994, President James Duderstadt and his wife, Anne, led an effort to restore the observatory to its original condition. The Bentley Historical Library took over its operations in 1995.
The new addition makes this space a popular and productive feature of U-M’s campus once again. Classroom, event and exhibit space make the entire facility more accessible to all visitors — while still preserving the historic integrity of the observatory.
The expansion was approved by the Board of Regents in 2019, and construction began that same year. The architectural firm of Harley Ellis Devereaux designed the project. In 2020, regents renamed it the Judy and Stanley Frankel Detroit Observatory in honor of the Frankels’ $5 million contribution to the project.
In this new state-of-the-art space, the observatory’s original scientific instruments are once again accessible to visitors, while providing hands-on experiences that illustrate key scientific concepts still available today.