Art School Graduates Try to Save Crumbling Observatory

Sat April 09, 2005 - Midwest Edition

EAST CLEVELAND, OH (AP) It was built as a premier research and teaching facility, a monument to early American innovation, dedicated to unveiling mysteries of the universe and to charting stars in the far reaches of space.

For decades, world-renowned astronomers pondered, probed and calculated inside these brick walls.

But now the old hilltop observatory sits empty and dilapidated, possessed by a skin-crawling feeling that something awful happened here long ago, that some mad scientist might have died frantically in a flash of smoke and sparks.

For three art school graduates who studied the place, something awful did happen here –– not with the dramatic intensity of a science-fiction thriller, but with a sad turn of events still unfolding today.

The once-grand observatory, built in three phases over 40 years, beginning in 1919, sits atop a hill in this Cleveland suburb, its twin domes partially hidden by trees and overgrown shrubs. The building is defaced with graffiti and broken windows, and the grounds are strewn with junk, including old tires, mattresses and condoms.

For more than 60 years, the observatory was owned by Case Western Reserve University, which used it to teach astronomy and to catalog planets and stars throughout the Milky Way, occasionally discovering new orbs, including a mysterious star named SS433, which could involve a black hole.

In 1983, the university, after moving the telescopes to other observatories, sold the property to a partnership controlled by Alfred Quarles, president of a cable television company that has since gone out of business. A junked cable company truck still sits on the property.

Quarles, who paid $130,000 for the property, said vandals are to blame for much of the decay, and he wants to sell the place. He declined to disclose his asking price. The property was appraised by Cuyahoga County last year at $262,000, though Quarles is fighting to have that figure reduced. He owes $30,000 in back taxes on the property, county records show.

“It’s a tragedy what Case did,” said Tim Elek, one of three commercial artists trying to save the observatory from further deterioration or demolition. “This is a part of history that should be preserved, and Case has a responsibility because of commitments made long ago.”

Those commitments were made 85 years ago to Worcester Warner and Ambrose Swasey, machine tool and telescope manufacturers who built the observatory as a gift to the Case School of Applied Science, which became part of Case Western Reserve University.

At the dedication ceremony on Oct. 12, 1920, Case President Charles Howe “assured the donors that the gift would always be a symbol of their regard and devotion toward this school,” a campus newspaper reported at the time.

Today, Elek, 32, and his colleagues, Matt Neff, 23, and Tony Solary, 24, all graduates of the Cleveland Institute of Art, believe the donors were duped.

The artists express that sentiment in a slick DVD they produced, documenting the rise and fall of the observatory. It is a work charged with criticism, holding the observatory up as a historical treasure and condemning society’s indifference toward it.

The three advocates are using the video to lobby preservationists and public officials into rescuing the observatory, so far with no luck. They don’t care if the place becomes a museum, coffee shop or church, just as long as the building is preserved.

“I can’t speak for Warner and Swasey,” Elek said. “But I would imagine they would be upset over the condition of that building today.”

“All that work and effort,” added Neff. “And now it sits abandoned on a hill.”

Warner and Swasey, owners of the Warner & Swasey Co., established in Cleveland in 1881, were amateur astronomers.

Initially, they studied the night skies from a backyard observatory they built in the late 1800s behind their adjacent mansions.

For the Case observatory, they hired the prestigious architectural firm Walker and Weeks, whose portfolio includes Cleveland’s Federal Reserve Bank, the Cleveland Public Library’s Main Library and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in suburban Cleveland Heights.

The first phase of construction began in 1919 with the building of a cylindrical tower at a cost of $87,000. It was topped with the dome from Warner and Swasey’s backyard observatory.

In 1941, a bigger domed tower was added, along with an auditorium, library, classrooms and a rotunda, at a cost of $127,000. In 1963, another addition was built to expand the library and office space.

By the late 1950s, light pollution in the city made it too hard for astronomers to study the night sky, so Case established an observatory in Geauga County, moving some of the Warner & Swasey equipment there.

Over the next 20 years, telescopes were moved in and out of Warner & Swasey, but by 1980, there were none.

The university was faced with big utility and maintenance bills for an outdated facility four miles from its campus.

Case astronomer Charlie Knox, who worked and studied at the observatory for 10 years, said it was no longer practical to keep the place going.

“The driving force is not nostalgia. It’s science,” he said. “It’s hard to justify spending a lot of money on something that is not front line. They just wanted it off the books.”