Vassar College Observatory

The outside of the brick observatory building with shiny metal dome
The Vassar College Observatory, March 2014.

Photo by Collin Knopp-Schwyn (CC-BY-4.0).

Quick Facts
Vassar College campus, Poughkeepsie, NY
On the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark
Vassar College
The Vassar College Observatory was the first building constructed on Vassar College's campus. It was completed in 1865. It is important for its association with Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer in the United States.

Maria Mitchell was the first Director of the Vassar College Observatory, serving in that capacity from 1865 to 1888 when she retired. The next three directors were women, all of whom could trace their academic lineage back to Maria: Mary W. Whitney (1888-1895); Caroline Furness (1895-1936), and Maud Worcester Makemson (1936-1957). Henry Albers was the Director from 1858 to 1990, and Fred Chromey has served as Director since 1990.

Built for Mitchell, the Observatory includes apartments that she and her father lived in during her tenure as Director. When viewing things (like stars) at a great distance, even the tiniest motion can shift the view. To prevent movement of the telescope, the building rests on five massive stone piers designed to keep the structure "immovable by wind or any mechanical force."

Mitchell is described as "an educator if importance to her generation, an idealist, a stoic philosopher, a famous woman astronomer, a leader in the feminist movement for higher education of women, and a woman of strong character." The Vassar College Observatory is the place that best represents her professional contributions.

The Vassar College Observatory was added to the National Register of Historic Places and designated a National Historic Landmark on July 17, 1991. It is also known as Maria Mitchell's Home. The Historic American Buildings Survey has recorded her home and the ObservatoryLink to the nomination form.

Last updated: March 19, 2019