Astronomical Heritage in Spatial Context: Completing the Turn

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MA in Historic Preservation

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To view a complete copy of this thesis please contact Goucher College Special Collections & Archives at or (410) 337-6075.


This study takes as its thesis that the spatial turn, an analytical concept borrowed from other disciplines and introduced but not integrated into the National Register of Historic Places, and the serial property type, a historic property category that acknowledges spatial distributions, can support and complement the Nation’s preservation program and present a more accurate and comprehensive view of the past to the American public. The nineteenth century was a formative period for many American institutions and a period during which the science of astronomy played an influential role. Included in the curriculum of most American colleges early in the century, astronomy was a foundational discipline of a classical and increasingly secularized education. Beginning in the 1830s and for the remainder of the century, a modern building type, the astronomical observatory, was built on college campuses throughout New England to support the astronomical curriculum. After the Civil War, colleges for women appeared, especially in New England, with astronomy prominent in the curriculum. The survival of these college observatories into the twenty-first century is a reminder of the role of astronomy in institutions of higher education throughout this earlier period. The traditional approach in historic preservation recognizes individual places significant for their association with events or people “important in the past” or significant for their physical design and construction. Although several of these college observatories are associated with astronomers who attained national and international recognition for their work, few important discoveries occurred in these places where teaching took precedence over research. While well-known architects designed several of these college observatories, the aesthetic value of the buildings is not the characteristic that defines their significance. Their significance lies instead in their connections with each other and their associations—cultural, social and functional—over time. The historical values resulting from this group of related observatories is best understood in the context of a serial property, a historic property type commonly acknowledged in the international preservation community, but currently ignored in the United States. To provide a theoretical basis for the serial property type, this study examines the concept of the spatial turn and its application in fields as diverse as architectural history and the history of science. Emphasizing spatiality in historic preservation with the addition of the serial property type, as this study shows, would complement and extend changes already undertaken within the National Park Service to bring preservation in line with contemporary historiography and enhance the way we understand the past.