The Drake Municipal Observatory is probably the only scientific facility of its kind more familiar to local golfers than local school kids. Since 1921, it’s sat between the green on the 17th hole of Waveland Golf Course and the tee of the 18th. It’s an anomalous presence among the fairways and the nearby tennis courts, like a relic of some alternative version of Des Moines.
The bluff-colored limestone building is now behind a chain-link fence, the gates of which only open to the public when the observatory is hosting lectures or other events. The exterior of the building shows signs of disrepair, from small dings in the copper plating of the dome caused by errant golf balls to the increasingly decrepit outdoor observation deck, which is now closed because it’s no longer safe to walk on. As night falls, it’s easy to see how the observatory got its reputation as one of the most haunted places in the city.
The decision to locate Drake’s observatory on the golf course was made by Daniel Morehouse, who taught astronomy at the university from 1900 until his death in 1941. A renowned astronomer, he gained an international reputation by discovering a comet while still in graduate school. During his life, Morehouse was involved in every aspect of the observatory. After his death, his devotion to it, and the fact his cremated remains are interred in the building, helped inspire many of the ghost stories that surround the observatory.
When Morehouse arrived at Drake in 1897 as a 21-year-old transfer student from a college in Minnesota, the university already had a small observatory. It was located in the tower atop the Science Hall which was completed in 1891, only 10 years after Drake’s founding.
The observatory was largely idle in its first few years, but by the time Morehouse enrolled it had a telescope that was state of the art for its day. Morehouse proved to be such an exceptional student while working on his bachelor’s degree, he was hired to teach physics and astronomy at Drake as soon as he graduated in 1900.
Morehouse balanced his teaching duties with graduate studies, first at the University of Chicago, where he earned his master’s. It was while working at Chicago’s observatory at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, in September 1908, that Morehouse discovered a previously unidentified comet. He originally called it Comet C, but his colleagues renamed it Comet Morehouse, the name it still bears.
After completing his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley in 1914, Morehouse returned to Drake full time. In addition to teaching, he also served as Dean of Men. He proved such an able administrator he was appointed acting president in 1919 and given the job permanently in 1923. It was during his years as acting president Morehouse oversaw the construction of the Drake Municipal Observatory, his most lasting legacy at the university and in the city.
Even before Morehouse became acting president, Drake’s observatory atop Science Hall had become of limited use. It was always small, but at least it had a fairly clear view of the night sky. Or it did until the neighborhood around the university began to grow.
Decades before “light pollution” became a common term, it was a problem for Drake’s original observatory. As neighborhoods around the campus grew, there was more and more artificial light at night from homes and businesses. It made stars less visible both for families in their backyards staring up at the sky and for the astronomers at Drake.
And the problems went beyond the light and cramped space. Vibrations caused by passing streetcars rattling along their tracks interfered with some of the observatory’s delicate equipment.
The need for a new observatory was obvious to Morehouse. So was the best location for it.
Morehouse later told a colleague about walking in what was then Waveland Park shortly after graduating from Drake in 1900, and thinking “the sightly knoll in the middle of that beautiful public park was the place for an astronomical observatory.”
The year after Morehouse took that walk, the city converted the park, including the sightly knoll, into a golf course. (That 1901 opening date gives Waveland a strong claim on being the oldest municipal golf course west of the Mississippi.)
Golfers puttering around didn’t make the site any less attractive. The knoll was the highest point of ground available in the city. Waveland was then at the western edge of development in Des Moines, away from lights and other problems. But it was only two miles from Drake’s campus, making it accessible for students and faculty. And the price for the plot of land couldn’t have been better. It was free.
Morehouse negotiated a “gentleman’s agreement” with Des Moines city government. The city would provide the land, build the observatory and maintain the exterior of the building. Drake would provide the astronomical instruments, the staff and offer educational public programming at the observatory. The building project cost the city approximately $53,000, the equivalent of $897,000 in today’s dollars.
The idea of public education programming appealed to Morehouse, who worked to make astronomy as accessible as possible. In an obituary published by the State Historical Society in 1941, one of Morehouse’s colleagues said he structured his lectures at Drake “in such a way as to fascinate students, avoiding the highly mathematical and theoretical aspects of the subject that would interest only specialists.”
Construction began in 1920, and the observatory opened the following year. Much has changed since then, as the city grew around Waveland, bringing with it the light pollution Moreland was trying to escape. But walking into the observatory is still the same experience it was in 1921.
On both sides of the public entrance the limestone is fashioned into imitations of Corinthian columns. Carved into the faux-columns are the signs of the zodiac. Above the door is a depiction of the winged sun disk of ancient Egypt, complete with attendant cobras.
Speaking at the observatory’s dedication, Morehouse explained the reason for the mashup of antiquities: “Thus in review before our minds passes the ancient Chaldean, Persian, Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations, each of which contributed its part to the science to which this building is dedicated.”
The art continues inside. Through the entranceway is the observatory’s rotunda, where the floor features a mosaic of the solar system. Eight planets are shown orbiting the sun. There are only eight, because Pluto wasn’t discovered until 1930. The mosaic was never updated, which turned out to be a good choice after the International Astronomical Union downgraded Pluto to dwarf-planet status in 2006.
Herb Schwartz, the longtime lecturer at the observatory, has determined the mosaic depicts the position of the planets on Oct. 1, 1921.
Schwartz is a witty speaker who makes complicated subjects easy to understand. His style has attracted fans to the observatory’s free public lectures, presented on Friday nights during the spring, summer and fall.
There were 150 old, mismatched, wooden chairs set up in the observatory’s lecture hall for the final presentation of the 2022 summer season on July 22. Before Schwartz started his talk about meteors, every seat was filled and people were standing in the back of the room. The crowd was enthusiastic, but such enthusiasm hasn’t prevented the observatory from decades of problems.
After Morehouse’s death in 1941, the prominence astronomy once enjoyed at Drake faded. Enrollment in classes declined, and so did the university’s financial support for the observatory. The city’s, too. In the 1970s, Des Moines Parks and Rec said budget cuts prevented it from holding up the city’s side of the gentlemen’s agreement involving upkeep of the building’s exterior. By then the observatory had begun to weather badly, and had been repeatedly vandalized. As the years went on the condition of the building declined, the Des Moines Register said some locals began to consider it “a dilapidated, old tomb.”
Tombs, of course, attract ghost stories, as do buildings containing unexpected human remains. On the wall next to the guestbook in the observatory’s rotunda is a plaque marking the final resting place for ashes of Daniel Morehouse and his wife Myrtle.
It seems to be common consensus that if the observatory is haunted, it’s Daniel and Myrtle doing the haunting. Fortunately, reports of ghostly Morehouse activities sound more like pranks than movie-style poltergeisting.
Students have reported occurrences such as lights flickering on and off, locks on doors behaving oddly and sudden cold spots that have no apparent cause. Even Herb Schwartz has had a couple of spooky experiences.
One night when Schwartz was alone in the observatory, a door burst open and a gust of air rushed in. He called out to see if anyone had opened the door, but there was no reply. Another time, Schwartz had just locked up to leave and drove down the road to lock the gate, only to see one of the lights from a machine he’d just turned off blinking in the distance.
Community support over the decades has kept the observatory from being a mere ghostly relic. In the 1970s, when the city and the university were neglecting the upkeep of the building, supporters raised money to cover the cost of badly needed repairs. It happened again in the ’90s: Concerned community members pushed the city to repair the observatory, and the campaign gained support from local businesses. A major renovation of the observatory was launched at the end of that decade.
At the same time, Drake was actively considering ending all its support for the observatory. But pushback from the Waveland Park Neighborhood Association and others — and eventually pressure from Drake alumni — made the university renew its commitment.
In 2001, the renovations were finished and the future of the observatory appeared secure. But the passage of another two decades has taken its toll on the century-old structure. Schwartz and others have learned to work around the building liabilities.
Attendees of the Friday lecture series used to be invited out onto the observation deck to star-gaze through telescopes after the lecture was finished. But since the deck is no longer safe, the telescopes are now placed on the observatory’s lawn.
Schwartz estimates supporters would need to raise nearly $2 million, with the city providing matching funds, to fully rehabilitate the facility. Speaking after his meteor lecture, his last presentation before retiring, Schwartz was concerned about the observatory’s future.
“It’s amazing — nearly every lecture I do there’s always people who come in saying ‘Oh, I never knew this was here,’” Schwartz said. “I worry, now that I’m stepping aside, that [the lecture series] won’t continue on.”
For now, the Drake Municipal Observatory remains what it’s been for more than a hundred years: an anomaly on a sightly knoll.
Elaine Irvine has orbited all around Iowa — originally a Cedar Rapidian, she is now a University of Iowa grad, who has landed in Des Moines. Elaine is an avid reader, painter and journaler when she isn’t watching blissfully awful movies and TV shows. This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 005.
Iowa Observatories and Planetariums
The Hawkeye State has plenty of space, but what about outer space? These planetariums and observatories offer a glimpse of the cosmos from the comfort of an air-conditioned room — with expert educators to guide your journey.
University of Iowa Department of Physics & Astronomy
203 Van Allen Hall, 30 N Dubuque St, Iowa City
Check the Van Allen Observatories Facebook page for upcoming Public Observing Nights, free and open to all
1365 Ivanhoe Rd, Ely
Operated by Cedar Amateur Astronomers, a member of NASA’s Night Sky Network
Public events listed at cedar-astronomers.org/events, free and open to all
Live viewing of James Webb Space Telescope images with guest speaker, NASA Solar System Ambassador Mark Brown, EIOLC, Sunday, Aug. 14, 1 p.m., Free
Grout Museum of History and Science
503 South St, Waterloo
Open to all, museum admission $3-6
Opened in 1956, renovated in 2021
Seats 33 and hosts 500 shows a year
Luther College’s Valder Hall of Science
700 College Dr, Decorah
Free and open to the public
Built in 1964, seats 65
Science Center of Iowa
401 W Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway, Des Moines
Open to all, center admission $11-13
Closed Aug. 22-31
Waveland Golf Course, 4898 Observatory Rd, Des Moines
Operated jointly by Drake University and the City of Des Moines
Hosts weekly Public Night Series in spring, summer and fall, free and open to all
Celebrates its 101st anniversary in November
117 E Willow St, Cherokee
Free and open to the public
Public programs every Sunday and Wednesday at 4 p.m.