News Story

Restoring Georgetown’s Heyden Observatory

Georgetown’s Francis J. Heyden Observatory is one of 24 sites in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2013 Partners in Preservation Program, a community-based initiative that awards $1 million in grants to historic sites.

The 2013 Partners in Preservation Program is open from April 24–May 10. Heyden Observatory earns points when you vote online and via mobile once a day, every day, and when you share with friends via Twitter, check in on Foursquare, and take photos on Instagram.

  • Vote to restore Georgetown’s Heyden Observatory.
  • Georgetown will host an open house at the Heyden Observatory on Saturday, May 4 and Sunday, May 5, from noon to 3 p.m. The open house will include tours of the observatory and possible appearance by Jack Jr., the university mascot.
  • The Georgetown University Astronomical Society will also host a stargazing event at the observatory on Saturday, May 4, from 8 to 10 p.m.
  • Learn more about how to earn more points for Georgetown.

Heyden Observatory is the third oldest observatory in the country. It was designated a national historic landmark in 1973 for contributing “significantly to the cultural heritage and visual beauty of the District of Columbia,” according to the National Register of Historic Places. Until 1972, the observatory housed Georgetown’s world-renowned astronomy department.

Follow Georgetown College more information about the Heyden Observatory and the contest. Join the conversation on Twitter, #GUobservatory.


The observatory was founded and designed by Rev. James Curly, S.J, who served as its director for 50 years. The building was completed in 1844, when the Georgetown campus was still mostly farmland. “It was an excellent choice—a hill some 150 feet above the Potomac. His selection was considerably better than that chosen by the naval observatory where mist from the river hampered observation and malaria attacked the health of the observers,” wrote Rev. Francis X. Quinn, S.J., in a letter dated 1959.

In 1844, Father Curley began to calculate the longitude and latitude of Washington, DC, for the first time. His measurements were based on moon calculations observed at Georgetown and at Greenwich, England. Despite a lack of precise instruments, he determined the longitude and latitude with remarkable exactness. After cables were laid between the United States and United Kingdom, Father Curley’s estimate was found to be correct within three-tenths of a second.

Astronomers at the Heyden Observatory continued to make significant contributions to science throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. In the 1890s, Rev. George A. Fargis, S.J., and his assistant Rev. John Hedrick, S.J., developed the photochronograph, the first instrument able to observe the transits of the stars photographically. The instrument was the basis for the photographic zenith telescope, which is the most common tool used to make accurate determinations of time. In the 1930s and ’40s, Georgetown astronomers led solar eclipse expeditions with the National Geographic Society in the United States, China, Siberia, Canton Island, and Brazil.

As the astronomy department expanded, graduates joined NASA, the U.S. Naval Observatory, and other top academic and research institutions. The department was closed in 1972, when light pollution from Washington, DC, made research too difficult.


Today, the observatory is used by the Georgetown University Astronomical Society (GUAS) and the university’s biology department. “The Astronomical Society uses the observatory for its weekly meetings and for other stargazing and educational activities,” Matthew Oswald (C’14), the GUAS president, said. “We [also] host speakers and have cookouts on the lawn outside the building. Our main goals are to share the rich history of the Heyden Observatory and to continue its legacy by providing a place for interested members of the Georgetown community to learn about the sky,” he continued.

With a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the university hopes to “protect cherished campus resources, particularly historically significant buildings such as the Heyden Observatory, a national historic landmark,” Regina Bleck, assistant vice president of planning and project management, said. The grant would allow the university to restore the building’s envelope, remove existing lead paint, repaint the exterior, and examine and stabilize the roof.

How to vote

From April 24–May 10, anyone who registers for Partners in Preservation, can earn points for Georgetown’s Heyden Observatory. You can earn points via each platform below one time per day. Please help us restore the observatory by voting every day.

  • VOTE: Register and select Georgetown’s Heyden Observatory. You can register with your Facebook user information or your email address. Each registered user can vote once per day. Point value: 50

Connect and earn more points! By registering and linking various social networks to your Partners in Preservation profile, you have the ability to earn even more points by:

  • Visiting the observatory and checking in on Foursquare. Point value: 10
  • Sharing a photo on Instagram and include our hashtag #GUobservatory. Point value: 10
  • Tweeting about the observatory using our hashtag #GUobservatory. Point value: 10