Warner & Swasey Observatory: A hilltop gem turned architectural relic

Machine tool manufacturer Warner & Swasey Company moved to Cleveland from Chicago in 1881 and partners Worcester Reed Warner and Ambrose Swasey opened their facility on Carnegie Avenue and East 55th Street.

As manufacturing technology evolved, the company became known for its turret lathes used to make brass plumbing parts and other precision instruments.

Swasey, who as a young man had developed a passion for astronomy, began experimenting with telescopes and the company soon began making a name for itself for building large telescopes.

The Schmidt being installed in its new dome at the Warner and Swasey ObservatoryThe Schmidt being installed in its new dome at the Warner and Swasey Observatory In 1886 the company was recognized for building a 36-inch refracting telescope—the largest telescope in history at the time—for Lick Observatory near San Jose, California. Warner & Swasey went on to build large telescopes in the late 1800s for the U.S. Naval Observatory outside Washington, D.C. and the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, among others.

Warner and Swasey in 1919 set out to build an observatory for their own personal use, but then donated the building and telescope on Taylor Road in East Cleveland to Case School of Applied Science (later to become Case Western Reserve University).

Dedicated in 1920, the observatory was situated on a small hill, about 270 feet above Lake Erie at a time when Cleveland had little light pollution.

Warner and Swasey hired acclaimed Cleveland architectural firm Walker & Weeks to design the initial concrete and steel building that was finished in red brick with stone trim. The stone arched entryway is embossed with “Warner & Swasey Observatory” on the arch, with “Case School of Applied Science” engraved below.

The facility was touted as one of the best and most beautiful in the country at the time. Its location, minimal city light, and the Warner & Swasey 9.5-inch refractor telescope positioned the observatory as an ideal site for viewing the heavens.

Inside, the building held the observatory, a reception hall, laboratories, a darkroom, offices, and an apartment. The walls were lined with wood built-in shelves and paneling, and the reception hall had a green marble floor with an inlay of gold zodiac patterns.

Warner died in 1929 at 83 and Swasey died in 1937 at the age of 91. The partners never made money at building telescopes, but reportedly called the endeavor a “labor of technological love.”

In 1941, CWRU expanded the Warner & Swasey observatory, adding a second dome with a second, more powerful Warner & Swasey Burrell Schmidt 24-inch telescope (named after the chief engineer at Warner & Swasey), exhibition space, and auditorium. The facility saw a few different telescopes in its heyday.

Warner’s wife, Cornelia, and daughter, Helen, dedicated the Worcester R. Warner Memorial Hall auditorium with the inscription “by his wife and daughter for the extension of knowledge and the service of those who, as did he, gain delight and inspiration from the unfolding mysteries of the skies.”

Warner and Swasey Observatory todayWarner and Swasey Observatory today The expanded observatory was noted for its research in the early 1950s—including a study that proved the theory that the Milky Way was a spiral galaxy and another study that found that red giants are mainly near the center of the Milky Way—making the facility a landmark among astronomers.

But by 1957 light pollution and smog from the rapidly expanding city prompted CWRU to build a new site for the Burrell Schmidt telescope 30 miles east of Cleveland, in Montville Township in Geauga County.

The telescope was then moved in 1979 to Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. When the Warner & Swasey Observatory was permanently closed in 1982, the original 9.5-inch refractor telescope was moved to the CWRU campus, on the astronomy department rooftop.

CWRU sold the property and observatory to a cable company, and in 2005 a real estate executive made plans to buy and convert the building into a luxury home before he was convicted of mortgage fraud and the property was left vacant.

The property and the decayed building still sit quietly on the East Cleveland bluff today. Thieves stole the copper dome and stripped it of anything valuable years ago, and vandals have covered the interior with graffiti.

Astronomy buffs and professionals alike, as well as architectural history buffs, can still be seen poking around the abandoned site.

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Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.