Council of Independent Colleges Historic Campus Architecture Project


Hopkins Observatory

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Institution Name: Williams College
Original/Historic Place Name: Hopkins Observatory
Location on Campus: 829 Main St.
Date(s) of Construction and Designer(s):
1836-1838original construction Unknown
1962relocation and renovation Unknown
Type of Place: Individual building
Style(s): (Glossary)
Foundation: reinforced concrete
Walls: stone
Roof: rubber
1838-present (2007)planetarium
1838-present (2007)observatory

Significance: education, history
Landmark designation:
Narrative: see below
References: see below

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."

I. Bibliographic sources:

"Hopkins Observatory." Online (2006). Williams College, Williamstown, MA.

Lewis, R. Cragin, ed. Williams 1793-1993: A Pictorial History. Williamstown, MA: Williams College Bicentennial Commission, 1993.

McElvein, Bruce. "Williams College Architecture." B. A. thesis, Williams College, 1979.

Pasachoff, Jay M. "Williams College's Hopkins Observatory: The Oldest Extant Observatory in the United States." Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage vol. 1, no. 1 (1998): 61-68.

Rudolph, Frederick. Mark Hopkins and the Log: Williams College, 1836-1872. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956.

Rudolph, Frederick. Mark Hopkins and the Log: Williams College, 1836-1872. Reprint, with an appendix by the author, "Williams College 1793-1993: Three Eras, Three Cultures," Williamstown, MA: Williams College, 1996.

Schuyler, Montgomery. "The Architecture of American Colleges VI. Dartmouth, Williams and Amherst." Architectural Record 28 (December 1910): 424-42.

Spring, Leverett Wilson. History of Williams College. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1917.

Stoddard, Whitney. Reflections on the Architecture of Williams College. Williamstown, MA: Williams College, 2001: 32.

Turner, Paul Venable. Campus: An American Planning Tradition. New York: Architectural History Foundation; Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984.

II. Location of other data:
University: Special Collections

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