Astronomy in Decline


Alfred C. Haussmann

Professor of Physics, 1920-1963


Alfred C. Haussmann

Brooks' replacement as professor of physics was Alfred C. Haussmann. A graduate of the University of Chicago, his area of expertise was spectroscopy and radio, not astronomy. He helped establish WEOS, the campus radio station, and supervised the Geneva Police Department's radio system, but no astronomy courses were taught for the next decade.

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Thomas S. Parker

Instructor of Mathematics, 1938-1942

Thomas S. Parker

In 1933, a General Science astronomy course was introduced. Although the Smith Observatory was still college property, the course was classroom-based and required no observations.

In 1938, the Colleges hired math instructor Thomas S. Parker. He had an interest in astronomy and began teaching the General Science course. Working with the local astronomy club and Cornell University, Parker put the Smith observatory back into working order. William Brook’s daughter, Anna, who was living in Brooks’ former house, had been using it to store furniture, which first had to be removed.

Parker taught both math and astronomy, and published small articles in the local paper about his observations. Unfortunately, he left the Colleges in 1942 to finish his PhD, and no astronomy course was offered for the next six years.

In 1948, the Colleges offerred a "lecture course for students of general interests," and again in 1953, a "non-technical" astronomy course was introduced. According to the course catalog "Several evenings will be spent observing the skies." These observations were most likely done on campus with a smaller telescope.


John Hovorka

Professor of Physics, 1963-1967

John Hovorka

In 1963, Alfred C. Haussmann passed away suddenly and was replaced by John Hovorka. A graduate of MIT, Hovorka was well-published and had organized and taught a course for the nine lunar astronauts at the NASA Manned Spaceflight Center in Houston. Although he was involved with aerospace science, he was an engineer and not an astronomer.

Prof. Hovorka left the Colleges in 1967 to join the staff of the Experimental Astronomy Laboratory at MIT. No astronomy courses were offered during his time here.


Smith Observatory Postcard, circa 1888-1920.

The Smith Observatory

When William R. Brooks passed away in 1921, the Colleges sold his home to his daughter Anna, who had been living there for thirty years. They retained ownership of the observatory, and there was some discussion of moving it to campus, as Castle Street was becoming too residential.

In 1950, Anna Brooks donated her father's charts, lenses, medals, clippings, and the Red House Observatory clock to the colleges. President Alan Brown, in his letter of thanks, wrote to her, "We try to take care of the splendid telescope in the Observatory, and are looking forward to the time when we will again have an Astronomer on our Faculty in order that we may make effective use of that magnificent instrument.”


President Louis M. Hirshson, 1956.

President Hirshson

In 1956, the Colleges elected Louis M. Hirshson as president. In 1957, he wrote to the American Astronomical Society looking to donate or sell the equipment in the observatory. He wrote that since Brooks’ death, “…courses in Astronomy have perforce been discontinued. The equipment has lain idle for some years and I think we should now plan to dispose of it.”

That winter, John Cain and the Finger Lakes Astronomy Club leased the observatory from the Colleges. Cain later reflected that he used the observatory "for fun and had a key to it for a few years when Sputnik was exciting."


The Smith Observatory refractor telescope, circa 1964.

In 1964, President Hirshson wrote about the observatory, “Annually the Trustees and Administration discuss doing something about it, and there is never either the money or the willingness to dismantle this historical relic. There is the further and important matter as well: that we get contrary pieces of advice as to worth and cost of restoration.”

Later that year, Horace Bowman of the National Bureau of Standards visited the observatory and suggested that the Smithsonian Institution may have funds to help. He advised President Hirshson to prepare a brief on Brooks and the observatory and send it to Walter Cannon, curator of Classical Physics.

Unfortunately, they could no longer find any of the materials donated by Anna Brooks. After some research, the brief was sent to the Smithsonian. Cannon wrote back, “Of course you understand that I am not a practicing astronomer myself, and the Smithsonian has no funds to support such projects. My thought was only that I might be of moral assistance when and if your college applies to such institution as the National Science Foundation for financial assistance.”


Sketch of Smith Observatory, 1950.

Hirshson then attempted to secure funds from the Gravity Research Foundation and NASA, to no avail. He wrote in 1965, “Over the past several years we have spent millions of dollars on the campus for absolute necessities in academic operations, housing, etc.; we have never been able to squeeze out the relatively few thousands to do something about the Observatory.”

In the summer of 1965, the Colleges boarded up the windows on the first floor, changed the locks, and patched up several holes to keep local children from getting inside. That year Cannon visited and suggested moving the observatory, or at least the equipment, to a site north of King's Lane on the Houghton House campus. This would be on campus and away from the light pollution of residential areas.

In 1966, the Colleges' observatory committee which included Prof. Hovorka, John Cain, and others, prepared their report. They suggesting building a smaller structure at the King's Lane location to move the equipment into. The telescope could easily be made functional and was good enough for students and beginners, but building a new observatory was cost prohibitive.


The Smith Observatory, circa 1964.

There is one section of the committee's October 28, 1966 report which perfectly summarizes the decline in astronomy at the Colleges over the previous forty years.

“Dr. Hovorka feels strongly that one must have a responsible and interested astronomer as the very basis for instituting and maintaining a proper observatory program. There is not now and has not been since 1922 anyone on our faculty who is qualified or interested enough to fill this position. He feels that whoever is ultimately hired as an astronomer would want to be in on the moving of the observatory; that an observatory would necessarily be a dynamic growing thing rather than a static institution; and that unless the project is viewed in this way we will end up with pretty much what we have right now -- a deteriorating, vandalized, practically useless structure.”

Two days later, strong winds blew out the second floor windows, which then had to be boarded up.

The End

President Hirshson retired in 1966. In 1964, he had written, “The Observatory is the basis of one of my guilt feelings—that with such a possession, the time has never seemed ripe to push for money to “redeem” it. There are other considerations, of course, re-location, etc. But none that money would not either completely or largely solve.”

In 1968, the Colleges stopped insuring the observatory. Harry M. Touhey from the insurance company wrote, “It is not being used and is locked and boarded up as well as being in poor repair.” Shaler Bancroft, treasurer, wrote, “The telescope is of such ancient vintage that it is impossible to obtain parts and likewise to determine the value for insurance purposes.”

In 1971, the Board of Trustees recommended donating the observatory to the town or historical society and selling the land, and gave the Colleges' administration the power to do so. In 1972, the lenses were brought to campus for safekkeping.


Dr. John Cain and Jack Mulvey in the Smith Observatory, 1974.

Jack Mulvey

When the Colleges sold William Brooks' house to his daughter Anna, the agreement was that the observatory would revert back to the owner of the house once the Colleges no longer were using it. Therefore, they could not legally sell it. In 1974, the Colleges abandoned the land, and it passed into the hands of Jack Mulvey, who had recently purchased Brooks' house.

Mulvey, with the help of his brother and nephew, began renovating the building. They removed vines from the exterior, replaced the windows, and rebuilt sections of the walls and flooring which had been destroyed by a beekeeper in 1972. With the help of a low-interest loan from the Geneva Historical Society, they lifted the entire structure several inches in order to repair the foundation.

The Colleges returned the lenses and John Cain helped refurbish the equipment.

In 1976, the Smith Observatory was once again open to the public. Between 1976 and 1988, 10,000 people visited the observatory. School groups toured it several times a year, and it was open to the public a couple days each summer.


The Smith Observatory, 2003.

A website was created documenting the history of William Brooks and the observatory. The website is now inactive, but can be seen via the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.

In 2008, Matt McIvor '09 and Jessie Schwartz '08 repaired the transit telescope as part of an idependant study project with Prof. Steve Penn. The same year, the Smith Observatory was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

John Mulvey sold the Brooks House and Smith Observatory in August 2018.

Astronomy in Decline