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Built from 1837-38, Hopkins Observatory is the oldest astronomical observatory in the United States that is still used for its original purpose, and it is also the oldest structure of its kind in North America. It is named after Albert Hopkins (1807-1872), younger brother of Williams president Mark Hopkins (1802-1887). Albert was a noted faculty member in the study of natural history during the mid-19th century, and he also served as a local minister. On his travels to Europe in 1834-35, he purchased the apparatus for the observatory, returning to New England with a "burning ambition" to create a building to house his scientific instruments. After designing the building himself, he and his students quarried the stone used in its construction.
Some renovations have occurred in the Observatory, most notably those that arose with the building's move in 1962 to its current position, north of its original location. According to Stoddard, in his Reflections on the Architecture of Williams College, it remains, however, "a lovely little building that has great consistency and repetition of shape."
The Massachusetts Historical Commission report (1993) also notes that "No evidence suggests the source of Albert Hopkins' octagonal design, although it is worth noting that octagonal forms were used in several buildings on campus at the time. The cupola on Griffin Hall, built in 1928, utilizes octagonal shapes, as does the Magnetic Observatory which followed in 1842. Perhaps the best example is the 1846 Lawrence Hall, which originally stood as a pure octagon."