Hartford Public High School Historic Planetarium and Observatory Soon to Open for Students
The historic Hartford Public High School building which architect George Keller designed in “Secular Gothic Style” stood at 39 Hopkins Street and was a “school which in architectural beauty and in completeness of equipment was far in advance of its time. This was particularly true in regard to the facilities for teaching science.” The school had a chemistry laboratory and a science lecture hall that surpassed those of most colleges and all public schools in that day (1883). It was during Joseph Hall’s principalship that the school became a leading high school for science in the United States.
A new observatory housed the Alvan Clark telescope, a fine instrument produced by the firm of Alvan Clark and Sons in 1883-4. Clark began creating telescopes in Ashfield, Massachusetts in the 1840’s, and the 26-inch lens at the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. is one of his larger works. Almost every large observatory in America and many throughout Europe housed Clark telescopes. The Hartford Public High School telescope is one of the scientific treasures of the Hartford Public High School and it is part of a collection of late 19th and early 20th Century science equipment, particularly for Physics classes, which has been saved over the years. The Observatory is one of the oldest, if not the very oldest high school observatory in the U. S. Its future was in jeopardy when plans for a new school building were announced in the late 1950’s.
The observatory and telescope would have been lost if it had not been for the combined efforts of students and faculty who worked to have them preserved. In an effort which began in 1958, teachers Harold W. Gale, Charles W. Walker, Jr. and students Ernest Mackinnich, ’65, William Domler, ’65, Tom Walsh, ’60, and Donald C. Johanson, ’61, succeeded in saving the observatory and telescope from the wrecking ball. Eventually, the observatory and telescope were transferred to the new Forest Street building in 1963, where it has been ever since.
Donald Johanson, ’61, told me the following on June 15, 2007: “The Clark was saved when Mr. Walker told me there were no plans to accommodate it in the new high school. Tom Walsh (’60) and I organized a campaign to save the telescope. We attended board of education meetings and spoke out, solicited letters from astronomers at eastern universities, and wrote letters to the editor at the Hartford Courant.”
In 1962, a planetarium was added to the school; it was the first planetarium to be installed in a public high school in New England. Charles W. Walker, Jr., a science teacher appointed to direct the planetarium, developed interesting programs which were presented to the school community for over twenty years. In particular, the planetarium was very popular with elementary school teachers in Hartford and surrounding towns who brought their classes to HPHS for planetarium shows, year after year. The projector in the Planetarium is a truly scientific apparatus, unlike the digital projectors currently in use around the state.
Use of the two facilities ended in the 1990’s. However, in 2021, the school system’s Facilities Department procured an Allied State grant to restore the Planetarium and Observatory areas. Work is now completed, and with the inclusion of Earth Science and Astronomy into the high school curriculum, the use of the two facilities will pick up once again. It will be a gradual re-opening, just for the school community, and tours are not planned at the present time.
For more information about the HPHS Planetarium and Observatory and the History Center, please contact R.J. Luke Williams.
For information about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) studies at Hartford Public Schools, please contact Dr. Joanna Ali.