Reprinted From: Astronomy & Astrophysics: A National Historic Landmark Theme Study,
Department of the Interior; National Park Service, Washington D. C. (May 1989)
The Stellafane Observatory stands at an elevation of 1270 feet on an exposed shoulder of a hill one quarter mile southeast of the Breezy Hill Road in Springfield, Vermont. The observatory complex consists of two buildings designed by Russell W. Porter. They consist of the clubhouse of the Springfield Telescope Makers Inc., and the observatory proper, which contains a 12-inch reflecting turret telescope. Both the clubhouse and the observatory remain essentially in original condition. The clubhouse occupies the crest of a rocky knoll in an opening of 2.5 acres; the smaller observatory stands about 60 feet to the north at a slightly lower elevation. Oriented toward the north, the buildings face the dominant feature of Mount Ascutney (3,150 feet elevation) on the visible horizon.
The clubhouse of the Springfield Telescope Makers is a 1-1/2-story, wood frame building set on a rubblestone foundation. The original main section of the building was erected in 1924 (on a rectangular plan of 20 x 24 feet; a one-story, 11 x 13-foot ell was added to its southwest corner in 1926. The entire building is sheathed with tongue-and-groove wood siding hung vertically. The gable roofs over both sections are covered with asphalt shingles and show exposed rafter tails at the eaves.
The main north facade of the clubhouse displays considerable ornamentation in contrast to the simplicity of the rest of the building. The central main entrance is flanked by two wood Doric columns which support a full entablature. The columns, in turn, are flanked by paired hooded windows. The gable end is distinguished by exposed vertical ribs and by wide barge-boards which are incised with the phrase, "The Heavens Declare The Glory of God." A wood flag mast rises from the doorway entablature upward through the gable peak. A small metal trade sign depicting a man with a telescope and the inscription "Stellafane" hangs over the doorway.
At the southeast corner of the clubhouse a secondary entrance opens onto a small recessed porch. The slightly flared extension of the roof over the porch is carried by two rough peeled log columns; A simple balustrade connects the columns. On the south wall of the building, between a hooded double window and the corner of the entrance porch, a large sundial is painted onto the sheathing in contrasting colors.
The observatory building, constructed on an outcrop of bedrock in 1930-31, consists of a one story, 8 by 10 foot wood frame section attached at its north end to a circular reinforced concrete structure supporting the telescope. The wood frame section is sheathed with flush boards hung vertically; its gable roof is covered with wood shingles. The concrete structure has a diameter of 7.5 feet and is capped with a reinforced concrete dome, or turret, mounted at an oblique angle on a steel equatorial ring. From one side of the rotating turret, a 17 foot truncated pyramidal boom constructed of steel pipe and rod extends outward to support the parabolic mirror. On the opposite side of the turret, a single steel pipe extends outward to serve as a counterweight to the boom. The telescope operates in the following manner: Light from a celestial body strikes a 12 inch circular glass flat mirror mounted on the exterior of the turret from which it passes to the parabolic mirror mounted at the outer end of the boom.
The existence of the Stellafane Observatory in Springfield, Vermont is significant in the development of amateur telescope making and popular astronomy in the United States. The Stellafane complex contains both the original clubhouse of the first organized group of amateur telescope makers in the country, the Springfield Telescope Makers Inc., and the first large optical telescope built and owned by that kind of amateur society. Since their construction in 1924 and 1930, respectively, the clubhouse and observatory have remained in continuous use by the Springfield Telescope Makers, and have been preserved essentially in original condition. Stellafane now holds a worldwide reputation and attracts thousands of amateur telescope makers and astronomers to annual conventions held on the site.
The origin of the Stellafane Observatory derives from the efforts of one person, Russell W. Porter (1871-1949), an Arctic explorer, artist, astronomer, architect, and engineer. Porter aroused the initial interest in telescope making and then taught the techniques of that subject to a group mostly of skilled craftsmen who worked for the machine tool industry in Springfield. Subsequently, Porter designed for the group both the clubhouse and observatory at Stellafane. From 1920-1928 Porter provided intellectual stimulus and practical leadership to the group until he left for California to work on the giant Palomar telescope. Owing to his pioneering work at Springfield, Porter is now respected internationally as the founder of the amateur telescope-making movement.
The first meeting of the amateur telescope makers occurred in August 1920 at the Jones & Lamston Machine Company in Springfield. Instructed and inspired by Russell Porter, 16 people began the highly precise and challenging task of building their own telescopes. During succeeding months, Porter expanded the activity of the group to astronomical observation, taking field trips to local hilltops for all-night sessions. During the Fall of 1923 the group undertook construction of the building on Breezy Hill, which became its clubhouse; Porter contributed the plot of land, the architectural design, and the cost of some building materials. In December of the same year, the group established itself formally as the Springfield Telescope Makers, Inc., and elected Porter president. The basic requirement for membership consisted of making one's own mirror suitable for mounting in a telescope. At a meeting in January 1924 Porter suggested the name "Stellar Fane" meaning "shrine to the stars" for the new clubhouse.
Interest in the activities of the telescope makers soon began to spread beyond Springfield. The first articles about Stellafane appeared in national magazines later in 1924. Then in June 1925 Albert G. Ingalls, an editor of Scientific American, visited the site to gather information for an article that appeared in the November 1925 issue. That article generated enthusiastic response throughout the United States and around the world. Other articles about Stellafane and telescope making by Ingalls and Porter followed in the same journal and brought an ever-increasing response. Soon John M. Pierce, the vice president of the club, began to ship instructions and materials for making telescopes to meet requests from all over the world.
In July 1926 the tradition of the summer convention of amateur telescope makers at Stellafane was inaugurated with the first gathering of 20 persons, mostly from New England and New York. The following summer, three times that number came to the second Stellafane convention. Meanwhile, Ingalls had edited a new book on telescope making, including articles by Porter; the first printing was sold out by 1928. In May of that year, Ingalls started a regular column in Scientific American devoted to telescope making.
The popular movement in telescopy and astronomy was expanding rapidly from the nucleus at Springfield into an international phenomenon.
The relationship between Porter and the Springfield Telescope Makers changed abruptly late in 1928 when Porter moved to California to join the work then beginning on the 200 inch Palomar telescope, the largest in the world. Nevertheless he communicated with, and frequently assisted, the Springfield group and returned for annual conventions. His single greatest contribution to the group was still to come. In the Fall of 1929 Porter presented to the group his plans for a large telescope for the Stellafane site... "The first reflecting turret telescope in the world." The following summer Porter directed the construction of the observatory which was finally completed in 1931. The resulting Porter Turret Telescope at Stellafane and a smaller turret telescope with refractive optics also in Springfield are, according to Alan B. Rohwer a former president of the Springfield Telescope Makers, "the only two turret-type telescopes known currently to exist".
Porter attended the summer convention at Stellafane for the last time in 1946; he died in California 3 years later. Since then, the membership of the Springfield Telescope Makers has expanded into other states, and the activity at Stellafane continues to flourish, especially at the annual conventions. Nearly three thousand people from throughout the United States, Canada, and many other countries now gather at Stellafane every summer to share ideas, and experiences in a strictly non-commercial milieu, to display their increasingly sophisticated telescopes, for judging of mechanical design and operation under the dark Vermont sky. Among amateur telescope makers and astronomers Stellafane is now considered a shrine to Russell W. Porter and the founding of their movement: a trip to Stellafane is considered a pilgrimage.
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