Byrne Hall Observatory: Former home of DePaul's stargazers

Lisa Geiger
May 25, 2017

The aged dome atop Byrne Hall, a vestige of DePaul's earliest years, has been the site of scientific achievement and student ingenuity. Built in 1907, the dome houses a small observatory which formerly hosted astronomy clubs, class stargazing sessions and a historic celestial sighting.

Byrne Hall was built on the site of Lincoln Park's original St. Vincent de Paul Church, constructed in 1875, 22 years before the current St. Vincent's Church was completed next door. DePaul used the original church structure, renamed the College Building, to hold all classes and offices during its early years. In 1907, the building was reconstructed in its current form, a six-story stone structure capped by the distinctive copper domed observatory. Then known as the Academy Building, it housed university activities along with the DePaul Academy, a high school administered by the Vincentians. After the Academy closed in 1968, the building was renamed Byrne Hall in honor of the university's first president.

The observatory originally held a 6-inch lens refractor telescope and was a popular haunt of Fr. Daniel McHugh, C.M., an astronomy and geology professor who later became university treasurer and vice president. In 1909, Fr. McHugh, a historian and archivist, made history as the first person in the U.S. to sight Halley's Comet on its 1910 approach near Earth, four months before it was visible to the naked eye. McHugh was elected a Royal Astronomical Society fellow in 1923 for his work.

Don Scott, telescope 1942

Don Scott, senior science student, using the Byrne Hall telescope in 1942. (DePaul University/Special Collections and Archives)

While Fr. McHugh hosted Academy and university astronomy classes through the 1940s, interest in the observatory waned as he gradually retired from instruction. In the 1950s, the original telescope's lens broke, ending stargazing sessions until student groups resurrected the observatory in the 1960s. Student George Corso, now a professor of physics at DePaul, secured university support to refit the observatory with a 12.5-inch reflecting telescope. Corso and the DePaul Astronomical Society built a telescope workshop, darkroom and astronomy library for students and faculty. By the early 1970s, however, the observatory again fell into disuse after interested students graduated.

The Byrne Hall observatory entered its last period of use in the mid-1970s, when students Bill Decker and Steve Johnson led an effort to repair and revive the structure. Johnson recently shared stories about the work to restore the observatory while visiting the university to donate copies of the 1970s "Armchair Speculators of DePaul" science fiction club magazine to the University Archives. Decker, Johnson and several other students took it upon themselves to lift the domed observatory roof, which had become dislodged, back onto its tracks, allowing the roof to turn to adjust the telescope viewing window. They also had the telescope lens polished. Later, students Marty Durbin and Ozzy Calvopina installed a closed-circuit TV and infrared light detector system into the observatory. Students used the repaired observatory for events and small-scale research through the rest of the 1970s.

Ultimately, the Byrne Hall observatory's small size limited its ability to host classes, and more powerful alternatives like the Adler's Doane Observatory could better penetrate Chicago's light pollution. While the equipment is gone, the dome still stands atop Byrne's sixth floor, a testament to DePaul's early science facilities and the student effort and ingenuity that brought them to life for later generations.