Pasadena’s Private Observatory

Sep 7, 2010

The Hale Solar Observatory peeks above treetops in a quite Pasadena neighborhood, whose coordinates we are not at liberty to reveal.

Editor’s note: In the coming months we will be running occasional excerpts from our sister book At Home Pasadena. Normally these will run in Home & Garden, because that’s what they’re about, but this beautiful piece by Jill Ganon, with photographs by Jennifer Cheung and Steven Nilsson, is as much about Pasadena’s scientific and astronomical history, particularly the influence of George Ellery Hale. So we’re sharing it with you History Buffs.

We were thrilled to be granted permission to include in the book At Home Pasadena some glorious images of Pasadena’s Hale Solar Observatory. It is an exceptional example of scientific and architectural history, once deeded to, and then abandoned by, the Carnegie Foundation, and now in the capable hands of Pasadena architects Liz Moule and Stefanos Polyzoides. We’ve based some of the scientific information that follows on a discussion with Don Nicholson, who appears with his colleague, Gale Gant, in some of these photos.

Don Nicholson prepares the telescope.

George Hale's library

Don Nicholson has had a lifelong interest in astronomy. A retired optical systems engineer and former president of the Mount Wilson Observatory Association, Nicholson is the son of Seth Nicholson, staff astronomer at the Mount Wilson Observatory from 1915 to 1957, where, among other significant achievements, he discovered four of the moons of Jupiter. In June of 2007, Don Nicholson received a commendation from the city of Pasadena for his “tremendous contributions to the Mount Wilson Observatory and to the city of Pasadena.” A wry and modest man, Nicholson first assures us that it isn’t true, then suggests that if they are offering such an accolade to him, they must be giving them out on a weekly basis. But, when pressed to accept the honor, he is willing to go so far as to say, “If I have accomplished anything, the credit largely goes to Hale: If it weren’t for him, my parents would not have been in Pasadena, and I would not have had the opportunity to grow up in an environment that was influenced in great measure by him.”

The Pasadena firm of Johnson Kaufman and Coate designed the Hale Solar Observatory in 1924, with grounds by landscape architect Beatrix Farrand, the only woman among the founding members of the American Society of Landscapers. An internationally recognized scientist, George Ellery Hale was influential in civic and international activities by the time he commissioned the observatory, which became his office and workshop. With its stone bas-relief above the entrance and second bas-relief over the library fireplace, the building pays tribute to Hale’s interest in Egyptology. Hale was exceptional for his day in his ability to design and fabricate instruments in his own machine shop, which is located in the basement.

One of Hale's instruments

Visiting the observatory, I experienced the quiet thrill that I recall from childhood visits to Jefferson’s Monticello, where while viewing rooms from behind the velvet rope, I desperately wanted to enter each room and sit at the desk or hold the tea cup that he had held. The intimacy one feels with history at the observatory is due to the intimacy of the space itself. We were right there to watch the dome being opened to accommodate the telescope, and we walked among rooms containing Hale’s personal papers, tools and typewriter, which remain much as they might have been when last he used them.

Hale first detected the solar magnetic field in 1908 at the Mount Wilson Observatory, and in 1914 he made the observation that the sunspots of the northern and southern hemispheres reversed polarity every eleven years. But it was not until 1925, when he had his own laboratory, that Hale and collaborator Seth Nicholson finally published the Hale-Nicholson Law, confirming that while the magnetic polarity of sunspots flips every eleven years, the entire pattern repeats every 22 years. “That,” says Don Nicholson, “was probably the most significant piece of science to emerge from the Hale lab.”

Note the Egyptian bas-relief over the front door.

Hale’s interest in astronomy was with him all his life. His father, a wealthy Chicago businessman, bought him his first telescope at 14 and built him his own observatory on their property once he entered college. He went on to become a driving force in astronomy, building four of the world’s largest telescopes, Mount Wilson’s and Palomar’s among them, and founding the National Research Council. He was also a man of considerable civic engagement. A great friend of Henry Huntington, he is known to have influenced Huntington’s decision to endow his famous Art Gallery and Library. He was a member of the Pasadena Planning Commission and lobbied successfully to build Pasadena’s distinguished Civic Auditorium, City Hall and Central Library. With Robert Millikan and Alfred Noyes, he oversaw the transformation of Throop Polytechnic into what we casually refer to today as Caltech.

Upon retiring from the directorship of the Mount Wilson Observatory, George Hale is said to have chosen Pasadena as the home for his own observatory after observing the favorable conditions present during the day. We have also heard that he was loathe to be too far from lunch at Caltech’s Athenaeum. In either event, the history of Pasadena is richer for his having done his remarkable work here.

All photographs copyright Jennifer Cheung & Steven Nilsson.

Gale Gant, left, and Don Nicholson in the belly of the observatory

6 Responses for “Pasadena’s Private Observatory”

  1. Jean Spitzer says:

    I”ve always been curious to see inside. Thanks for the peek, and the history.

  2. Great blog. How amazing it is to have your own private observatory.

  3. Greg Harm says:

    The bas-relief on the entrance exterior is the work of Lee Lawrie, most famous for creating the Atlas statue at Rockefeller Center.

  4. Jill Ganon says:

    Thanks for your post. While I’ve lived happily in Pasadena for 26 years, I’m a native New Yorker and I have loved Lowrie’s Atlas at Rockefeller Center since I was a child. Lowrie also did the beautiful “Wisdom, Light and Sound” that commands what feels to me like the perfect fusion of art and gravitas at the entrance to 30 Rock, especially as it relates to the towering statue of Prometheus. But I totally missed the Lowrie connection at the Observatory – my oversight – and I thank you so much for pointing it out. But I have to say, even writing about Lowrie, makes me want to make a fall pilgrimage to NYC. Again, nice work Greg!

  5. JL Pogoler says:

    Are visitors allowed at the Hale Observatory, Pasadena?

  6. Nicholas Hormann says:

    George Ellery Hale’s interest in Egyptology stems from his life long friendship with my grandfather, James Henry Breasted, America’s first Egyptologist and founder of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. The bas-relief over the Hale observatory in Pasadena bears a striking resemblance to the design over the entryway of the Oriental Institute in Chicago. Over his whole lifetime Hale championed my grandfather’s work and it was largely due to Hale’s influence that Breasted was inducted into the American Academy of Science, its first “humanist.” Both men were dynamos in their fields and their mutual respect was steadfast over their lifetimes. I would love to see the inside of the observatory someday. Thanks for this wonderful article!



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