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No longer watching the stars – The abandoned Warner and Swasey Observatory

June 2023

Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) is a well-known private research university in Cleveland, Ohio, with the distinction of having seventeen Nobel laureates as members of the faculty and alumni of one of its two predecessors.

Established in 1967, when Western Reserve University, founded in 1826, and Case Institute of technology, founded in 1880, merged, CWRU has eight schools that offer over 100 undergraduate programs, about 160 graduate programs and various professional options.

For most of the 20th Century, CWRU had its own astronomical observatory, the Warner and Swasey Observatory, located on Taylor Road in East Cleveland, four miles east of the university campus, which housed a 9.5-inch refracting telescope. Named after founders Worcester R. Warner and Ambrose Swasey, owners of the Warner & Swasey Company, makers of precision instruments and telescopes, it was donated to the Case School of Applied Science in 1919, where both served as trustees.

Over the next three decades, the observatory added more telescopes and instruments, including a 24-inch Burrell Schmidt telescope, plus a public lecture hall and an astronomical library.

Astronomers at the Warner and Swasey Observatory made important contributions to astronomical research, including by the observatory’s then director, Jason Nassau, on the classification of carbon stars and M-type stars in 1949.

Growth of Cleveland in the 1950s created such significant light pollution, that it made work at the observatory difficult. A new site was built in Geauga County, 30 miles to the east. Named the Nassau Station, the Burrell Schmidt telescope was moved to this location. However, work continued at the Warner and Swasey Observatory, with their new 36-inch robotic telescope.

In 1978, the aging observatory was nearing the end of its service life for the university. That year, the Astronomy Department at CWRU and the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy came to an agreement to build a new observatory at Kitt Peak National Observatory, south-west of Tuscon, Arizona. The Burrell Schmidt telescope was moved to Kitt Peak in May 1979, followed by the 36-inch reflector to Nassau Station in 1980, bringing to an end the astronomical research at the Taylor Road observatory.

The staff and the library relocated to the main CWRU campus, along with the the old 9.5-inch refractor, which was reinstalled in a new dome on the roof of the A. W. Smith building in 1986. It’s now used by students, faculty, and staff at CWRU, along with public observation nights, hosted by the university’s Physics and Astronomy Club.

The Warner and Swasey Observatory building was sold in 1983, but it sat abandoned and deteriorating until 2005, when it was bought a couple who planned to convert the building into a residence. This never came to fruition, due to the owners being convicted of mortgage fraud in 2007.

The observatory remains abandoned today.

Sources: Warner and Swasey Observatory – Wikipedia, Case Western Reserve University – Wikipedia.

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About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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