Visitors to Van Vleck Observatory may be surprised to find a shower located in one of the building’s restrooms. While it looks to have been decommissioned long ago—perhaps to the chagrin of those who bike to work here in the summer—its existence is at first puzzling. Why would there be a full bathroom in a space that appears to house just classrooms and offices?
Answering this question takes us back to the original plans for the observatory, and reveals how much the building and its uses have changed over the past century. Although nighttime observing and public events still take place regularly at Van Vleck, in the early 20th century the building would have been host to more astronomical activity after hours. This was due to the material realities and requirements of observation at the time: an astronomer had to be physically present in the dome to operate the telescope and camera. You can see that the first floor of the building includes not only computation rooms for the daytime activities of astronomical calculation, but a bedroom and bath for the convenience and comfort of the nighttime observer.
We can imagine what a night at the observatory might have been like by looking at the logbooks the astronomers used to record their observations. Positioning the telescope to view and track a particular star, exposing the glass plate to capture an image, jotting down notes on the weather and any problems—these were the methodical activities that filled an observer’s nights while the rest of the campus slept. When his duties were done—or perhaps if the sky clouded over or an instrument malfunctioned—he might be able to catch a few winks in the bedroom, or refresh himself with a rinse in the observatory bathroom before the next day’s labors.
Today, the room that once held a bed for weary observers is now an office, as are the computation rooms, and a new kind of room has appeared, where an observer can sit at a computer terminal and control the telescope from a place of warmth and relative comfort. The old marble shower in Van Vleck Observatory is thus an artifact of an earlier age of astronomy, before computer-controlled observations and remote data collection, when observers spent their nights at the telescope, quietly photographing the heavens.