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Group seeks to preserve observatory

October 10, 2000

Nick Marinello

For the larger part of the last century, the Cunningham Observatory kept one eye on the heavens and another on the campus growing up around it. But now it may be seeing its final days unless funds can be raised to move the observatory from harm's way. Built in 1940, the observatory became one of the first landmarks along McAlister Drive.

A project beginning next summer to expand the facilities of the nearby A. B. Freeman School of Business, however, will require the structure to be either moved from its location, dismantled or demolished.

"President Cowen was sympathetic to this issue," said Henry Fry, director of campus planning and project manger for the business school expansion. "He gave us permission to move the building if we could come up with funds to do so."

The "we" Fry is referring to is a coalition of faculty, staff, and alumni-drawn largely from the Campus Planning Steering Committee and members of the architecture school faculty-who would like the observatory to continue to see the sun rise after Feb. 1, 2001. That's the deadline Cowen has set for fund raising. The goal is $285,000.

Leading the fund-raising is steering committee chair, architecture alumnus and emeritus board member Tim Favrot, who has already made a pilot donation to the effort and is funding the work of a local architecture firm to refine the details and costs for moving the observatory. Favrot's father was a partner in the architectural firm of Favrot and Reed, which designed both the observatory and the adjacent McAlister Auditorium.

As it stands, the plan is to relocate the observatory to the green space along Freret Street between Jones Hall and the Howard-Tilton Memorial Library.

"The Freret Street location makes sense," said Fry. "You don't want to move the observatory to a place where it won't be noticed."

Fry, in fact, said the relocated observatory could be turned into a functional space such as a coffee shop. It's an idea that Tony Lorino, senior vice president of operations and chief financial officer, said may fit within the larger scheme of campus planning. Lorino cited a study, commissioned by Tulane to develop and renovate the Howard-Tilton library, that recommended opening a 1,000-square-foot coffee shop on the library's first floor.

"If it becomes feasible to move the observatory," he said, "it could serve that coffee shop function and we wouldn't need one inside the library building."

According to Rob Hailey, associate vice president for auxiliary services and student centers, PJ's Coffee and Tea Cafi, which operates an outlet in Pocket Park, has expressed "a preliminary interest" in such a project. John Klingman, professor of architecture and member of the steering committee, can list at least three other reasons why the observatory should remain intact.

He calls the country's university campuses "repositories of architecture" and said that the Cunningham Observatory, a rare building type, has enough architectural and historic value to merit preservation. Klingman also suggests that the charm of Tulane's campus is largely due to its superb planning, verdant outdoor spaces and its many fine structures.

"The campus is beautiful and this building is one example of that," he said. Beyond that, he said, the building resonates in the memories of alumni who over the years have gone there to take astronomy courses or watch the sky. The observatory, in fact, has been used since 1972 as a classroom by Dan Purring- ton, professor of physics, for students studying the stars.

He has taught Descriptive Astronomy and Observational Astronomy since that time and estimates approximately 150 students enroll in his classes each year. Purrington is quick to dispel the prevailing notion on campus that the observatory's telescope is nonfunctional.

"The observatory is alive and well. It works," said Purrington. "I'm the only one who uses it." The telescope dates from 1893 and was the instrument of choice for noted Harvard astronomer William Henry Pickering during his work in Jamaica in the 1920s and '30s. His granddaughter later donated it to Tulane.

Purrington, who is awaiting the arrival to campus of a powerful, computerized telescope later this year, said he hopes the historic telescope is included in any relocation project and wouldn't mind if it became simply a coffee house's interesting historical artifact.

"It's an antique," said Purrington, "We don't want to be in the business of offering early-20th-century technology to our students."

Plans for relocating astronomy classes have not yet been finalized, he said. At press time, Klingman said the committee was hoping publicity about the project would make fund raising easier. He said he expects an article about the observatory in the October issue of Preservation in Print, the publication of the Preservation Resource Center, to stir community interest. If funding can be secured, the next step will be to move the structure. The local contractors Abry Brothers have developed a preliminary plan to do so.

The idea, said Klingman, is to excavate the area beneath the observatory and then raise the building on steel beams. The beams would support the building while it is rolled over temporary steel aircraft landing mats. Beyond securing funding for the project, the architects who have reviewed the proposal, including Favrot, Eean McNaughton, architecture dean Don Gatzke, Fry and Klingman, agree the greatest challenge of the relocation will be in negotiating the campus' many oak trees.

They see the irony in losing any of campus' natural beauty in order to preserve its manufactured aesthetics. Fry said he believes a compromise can be struck in a route that would mandate the loss of only "some branches." Klingman, however, noted that a moderately sized oak on the proposed Freret Street site would have to come down. It's likely to be a busy four months for the observatory preservationists, but they maintain their optimism. "

I am willing to wager a six-pack of Abita that a year from now the building will still be around, one way or another," said Klingman. "Does not the univeristy have a responsibility to preserve its significant buildings?"

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 website@tulane.edu