Observatory sees heavenly bodies

By Norm Wheeler
Sun staff writer
“What’s the most amazing thing you’ve ever seen with this telescope?” asks a visitor to the Leelanau School’s Lanphier Observatory. My stock answer is another question: “You mean in the sky, or on the beach?”

Since the bicentennial year of 1976, visitors to the Glen Lake area and the Leelanau School have oohed and aahed at the wonders of the universe they can see through a 14” Celestron Schmidt-Cassegranian telescope. The observatory was a gift from Charles H. Lanphier, an electrical engineer from Springfield, IL, who summered on Glen Lake for most of his life. An avid astronomer as well as an inventor (he helped develop the electrical meter that’s now on everybody’s house), “Chick” Lanphier’s dream was to have a state-of-the-art observatory on Prospect Hill overlooking Glen Lake so he could share his star-gazing passion with everyone. With meticulous care Lanphier designed the facility, machined many of the parts himself, and even helped the Ash Dome Company develop the special “Lanphier” shutter that allows winter viewing through a special window so that the stargazers or astrophotographers in the dome don’t freeze. In 1976 the observatory opened when director Dave Waltrip showed students from Glen Lake and Suttons Bay high schools the “first light” through the big reflector. The following summer up to 90 people per clear night lined the lane from the Homestead Reception Center up to the Observatory, which offered stunning views over Big Glen Lake and Sleeping Bear Bay to guests on the deck waiting their turn to climb the ladder to the big scope. A Leelanau Amateur Astronomy Study Group soon formed under the leadership of Bob Moler, (northwestern Michigan’s astronomy guru, whose daily Ephemeris program can be heard on Interlochen Public Radio, 91.5 FM). Mr. Lanphier continued to pay frequent visits to Bill Maclachlan down at Old School Hardware as he tinkered with the darkroom, the shutter, or the dome, perfecting every detail of what his family down on the lake simply called “The O.” Sadly, Charles Lanphier passed on in 1978 just two years after the Observatory opened, but his legacy includes this amazing gift to the community that has made it possible for thousands of people to see astonishing views of planets, comets, nebulae, star clusters, and galaxies.
At the age of 15 years the Observatory had to move. The Leelanau School swapped the wooded hill where the Observatory stood with the Homestead Resort for the Cora Beals house down on the beach. The hill is now the site of the Homestead’s Stonybrook Lodge, and the Cora Beals house has moved onto the Leelanau School campus to become its visual arts center. (Cora and “Skipper” Beals founded the Leelanau School for Boys and Pinebrook School for Girls with Helen and Arthur Huey in 1929.) The demolition of the original observatory was pictured on the front page of the Traverse City Record-Eagle on February 15, 1990. The telescopes, the doors, windows, and lights, the darkroom equipment, even the blackboard and chalk were stored, and the dome squatted on the ground next to the Crystal River on the path to the Leelanau School waterfront for one summer while a new, smaller observatory was built down on the beach. We ran an electrical cord down to the beach and set up a platform for portable telescopes so that our twice-a-week public viewing nights could continue uninterrupted, and in 1991 the telescope was mounted on the new pier in the center of the building and the dome was placed on the new Lanphier Observatory on the shore of Sleeping Bear Bay. Gone was the view of Big Glen and the perfect southern horizon for seeing summer splendors in the constellations of Scorpius and Sagittarius. But the new location, with its perfect horizon from the Sleeping Bear sand dunes in the southwest all the way round to Pyramid Point to the north allowed for daily use as a classroom for all science and English students, and it has become a site for studying seasonal bird migrations, bald eagles hunting ducks along the edge of the ice all winter, the ships and fishing boats that ply the waters of the Manitou Passage, and of course the moon, planets, comets, stars and deep sky objects of the night sky.
When he presented the Observatory to the Leelanau School, Mr. Lanphier only required that the school continue to provide public viewing nights and instruction in astronomy for all. Thanks to Mr. Lanphier, hundreds of visitors continue to shuffle down to the “dome on the beach” between 10:30 and midnight on Wednesday and Thursday nights from the Summer Solstice to Labor Day, provided the clouds stay away (admission is $3 for adults and $2 for students). Along with the changing phases of the moon, numerous man-made satellites, frequent meteors, and rare northern lights, visitors on summer nights can expect to see the binary star Albireo, the Ring and Dumbbell nebulae, the great globular star cluster in Hercules, and the Whirlpool Galaxy. And this month, rising above the pines to the southeast, the planet Mars is closer to Earth and brighter to see than it has been for thousands of years. From September to May the Astronomy class at the private boarding school rules the roost, but visitors to the area may arrange to come to the Observatory on a clear night (for a fee) by calling the Leelanau School at (231) 334-5890.
Where Norm Wheeler teaches Astronomy and English has been called “the most beautiful classroom on earth”. He begins his 20th year at The Leelanau School this fall.