It's A Fact! Cunningham Observatory

July 1, 1997

Inside Tulane

The building: The architectural firm Favrot and Reed finished construction of the two-story Thomas F. Cunningham Memorial Observatory in the summer of 1941. Students began using the building in the fall 1941 semester.

An anonymous donor gave $20,000 to build and equip the structure in honor of Cunningham, who was president of the Mississippi Shipping Co. from 1919 to 1937 and president of the New Orleans Board of Trade from 1920 to 1924. Inside the building are a classroom and offices. A dome atop the structure houses one of six telescopes.

Instruments: The 13-inch reflecting telescope that is under the dome was built in England and was used in Jamaica by William Henry Pickering of Harvard College Observatory during the 1920s and '30s. Pickering was a prominent astronomer of his day and played a role in the discovery of the planet Pluto (1930). The telescope was given to the university by Pickering's granddaughter, Helen Pickering Zemurray. The building also houses five other telescopes, including a modern 14-inch Schmidt Cassegrainian telescope, which is mounted on the roof. This instrument is the one most used at the observatory.

Users: The observatory is used strictly as a teaching facility and its convenience still outweighs drawbacks such as light pollution and an obscured horizon due to Goldring/Woldenberg Hall. Nearly 200 astronomy students per year are taught in the observatory, with weekly observing sessions complementing lectures. While there are no regular public observing sessions, the observatory is often open to all comers when there is an eclipse or other notable event. Freshman architecture students also study the structure of the building in their studio class.

The observatory was not used to view Comet Hale-Bopp (seen from New Orleans this past spring), for the reason that comets are much better viewed from some very dark location and usually with binoculars rather than a large telescope, which would have a narrow field of view. Best time to star gaze? There is no particular season for star gazing, but fall and winter are best because of the greater likelihood of crisp, dry weather and clear skies.

Source: Dan Purrington, professor of physics, and university archives.

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000