In this recurring feature, Out of Reach, we take readers inside those nooks and crannies of Kenyon and Gambier whose histories elude us.
“Most students don’t even know that it’s up there. Scarcely a single person has been there for many years and nary a soul has found any use for it in nearly a quarter-century.” While those words from The Kenyon Collegian could have been written today about the abandoned observatory in Ascension Hall, back in 1977, the observatory had already been shuttered for years.
Until Scott Paisley ’81 came along. The English major wasn’t interested in astronomy, but when he and some friends rediscovered the space, they got the go-ahead from the administration to go to work cleaning “about an inch of various bird shit” that coated the stairs and floor, Paisley recalled.
College observatories began cropping up on campuses in the 1850s, and Kenyon was no exception. An English minister gave Philander Chase a telescope for the tower, and Peter Neff, Class of 1854, donated another — which Kenyon donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1977. In the 1860s and 1870s, Hamilton Smith, inventor of the tintype photograph, taught astronomy in the tower. But by the 1950s, the observatory had fallen into disrepair.
As part of the restoration deal, Paisley founded an astronomy club and held meetings with friends, including John Wilcox, a 1976 matriculant.
“John and I were so taken by the space we kept working on it and then somehow dragged two mattresses up into that space, moved all of our stuff in, including John’s homemade, five-piece stereo system,” Paisley said. “We adopted a cat, brought the cat in, and lived up there for the rest of that first semester. And at one of our parties during the end of the year, which is a great place to have a party, we were discovered and kicked out and the key was taken away.”
It wouldn’t be the last time Paisley would be banned from the observatory. After he convinced the administration that he was “a reformed man,” Paisley invited about five students to help with the restoration, including Marian Pearce, a 1978 matriculant whom Paisley would go on to marry his senior year.
“My junior year, Marian and I moved in, and that’s when I got in trouble again,” Paisley said. “One of the German professors at Kenyon wanted an antenna to be installed on Ascension so he could get PBS television from Columbus and asked Maintenance to see if there was a good place to put an antenna up on Ascension.” One day, Paisley and Pearce heard people on the stairwell.
“By the time we realize that someone really is coming in the door, we’re jumping up, neither one of us have any clothes on, and she grabs what she thinks are her clothes and climbs up into the top space. I pull a pair of pants on to try and fend off whoever’s trying to come in.
“She gets up into the upper room and realizes that all she’s gotten are her shirt and sweater. She didn’t grab any pants and the Maintenance guys are coming on up and said they’re under direction to look at the top of the observatory tower to see about putting up this antenna. And I see my wife, the rest of her clothing in the corner, and grab it and run it up to her, and she climbs out onto the roof and there were other Maintenance guys standing on the ground looking up waiting for their compatriots to come out but instead my now-ex-wife emerges, butt-first, with no lower clothing on, mooning them royally.
“That was the beginning of the end of my time at the observatory.”
Now, almost thirty-five years since Paisley’s restoration, the observatory resembles the state it was in before, with paint chipping away and bug carcasses and tree detritus littering the floor. But Paisley’s work paid off: there is little sign of bird guano.