Elgin Watch Factory Observatory

Welcome to Blog 2.0.  While in many ways this is still the same Pedaling Preservation — for instance the jokes are still bad and mine — some things are going to be different.

First, as noted on past posts, I’ve moved to Elgin, Illinois and would like to cultivate a scope and focus that accurately reflects this change.  Head over to my new “About Elgin” page to learn a bit more about my new (but actually old) digs.

Second, I’ve expanded my team. One of my best friends Maddie, artist/art teacher/cool person, and I realized one day how much we both thought Elgin was a great, but often overlooked, city. We felt that if we weren’t actively participating in telling the story of Elgin, we didn’t have to room to complain and question why so many people forget how awesome it is. So with her photography skills and my awesome great good alright writing skills, we decided to collaborate on some Elgin blogging. Read more about that in the new “About” section.

Lastly,  I know the biking aspect to the Denver iteration of “Pedaling Preservation” was an integral part to executing the weekly posts, not to mention the inspiration for the name of the blog, but for now give me some time to resuscitate this bad boy and bring back bikes and biking.  I promise I will.

In the meantime, I’m still peddling (read: disseminating) preservation in a different way. I’m so excited to introduce the first of many Elgin posts!

Intro:

Behold the Elgin National Watch Company Observatory.  Located at the northeast corner of Raymond and Watch streets, this structure was completed in 1910 by architect George Hunter.

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(Photo Credit:  Madeline Richmond)

What a difference a good photo makes!  Speaking of, this photo was taken facing north/northwest. 312 Watch Street was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, given a local designation of significance and listed under Criterion A (out of Criterion A, B, C and D) for its association with events that have made significant contributions to the broad patterns of history for its ties to commerce and science between the years of 1910 and 1944.

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(Courtesy of: Historic Architectural Resources Geographic Information System via Illinois Historic Preservation Agency)

Above, the red triangle marks the Observatory.

A digitized history of Elgin by E.C. Alft explains “[t]he Elgin National Watch Company’s astronomical observatory opened in February on the northeast comer of Watch and Raymond streets, [was] a site chosen because its gravel base reduced earth vibrations. When the United States Bureau of Standards disclosed in 1908 that time controls in America were inadequate, the firm decided to time its movements by the stars.”

That’s right folks, the ol’ time panic of 1908.  Just kidding, that wasn’t a thing (that I know of) but I find it fascinating and amazing that the Watch Factory took the initiative to not only build its own observatory to make sure their times were correct on their watches, but that they chose this specific spot because it was considered very stable ground.

Architecture:

312 Watch Street is historically known as Elgin National Watch Company Observatory, and currently named School District U-46 Planetarium/Observatory.It is of the Classical Revival architectural style.

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(Photo Credit:  Madeline Richmond)

It is a two-story structure with a tin roof and a concrete foundation and concrete walls.  Here a few of the main features of the Observatory that are also key characteristics for Classical Revivals:

  • symmetry
  • dome (seen below)

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  • cornice-line balustrade (seen above)

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  • tall windows (seen below)

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While this Classical Revival doesn’t have the grand columns or portico that dominate the facade of other, higher, styles in the same category, we can see from the pictures above how the front doorway does hold your eye and is a prominent feature. (Technically, then, called a portico in antis)

I also find it cool how not only is the dome feature for this Classical Revival is the actual observatory roof, but also how that same octagonal part of the building speaks to polygonal projects which is another feature of Classical Revivals, albeit more commonly attributed to high style structures.

History:

In 1927, a man named W.W. Payne, wrote about how he was one of the men involved in the original opening of the Watch Factory Observatory back in 1910.  Writing this piece in “Popular Astronomy,” a publication he also founded, he explained that “it was decided that the octagonal part of the building, which was to contain the even temperature rom for the standard, astronomical clocks, should be made of four-inch hollow tile, laid in cement, four courses in thickness, separate from one another by tarred paper to prevent moisture and quick changes of temperature form the outside.”  Woah! They did not mess around.

The Elgin National Watch Company Observatory may have been originally conceived in 1909 when the factory’s General Superintendent, George E. Hunter– whose father was the same George Hunter that designed the building — hired Mr. Payne, but its roots start even earlier.

Elgin was first settled by two brothers, Hezekiah and James T. Gifford in 1835.  By 1837, Elgin had its first post office and James was named its postmaster.  Enticed by luscious midwest soil, ample space and proximity to the already burgeoning city of Chicago, those two brothers along with many other wealthy Chicago transplants chose to stake their claim in Elgin area farms or other business enterprises.

By 1854, the city of Elgin was officially incorporated.  This year also marked 4 years of service by the Galena and Chicago Union Railroad to the city.  The National Watch Company, as it was then called, saw its first watch hit the marketplace on April 1, 1867. No joke!? Ha, get it? April Fools’ Day? Anyway…the Factory saw a precipitous rise in sales not long after that first watch was sold.  By 1901, the Elgin National Watch Company (as it was then named) sold over 600,000 watch movements.  That seems like a lot, and it should become even more impressive when you find out that in the same year the number of watch movements sold by all watchmakers across the US combined was 1,875,769. A number rivaled only by how many times Netflix has asked me “Are you still watching?”

This level of national attention hinged upon the high quality of Elgin Watches and was bolstered by the decision to build the observatory which promised scientifically accurate time for every watch built in the factory.

But what I find even more interesting is the context in which these famed and popular watches reside.  Before there were trains, planes and automobiles, corporate industrialism relied heavily on just trains.  Timing, then, became as much a factor of efficiency as it was a economic entity.  Watches were important because in the rising tide of industrial America, telling time and certainly being on time were crucial to economic success and viability.  Everything from the factory workers who made goods (including Elgin watches!) to to trains who moved goods across America relied on timing, thus necessitating watches that guaranteed accuracy.  With Elgin building its own observatory to ensure this guarantee with the help of nothing less than the moon and stars, many felt there was no better choice than the watches built by the Elgin National Watch Factory.

What is it today?

Deeded to School District U-46 in 1960 it still stands a place where U-46 school children come on class field trips. The Planetarium portion was added a few years later in 1963.

While there have been a few directors over the years, the current Planetarium Teacher/Director is Peggy Hernandez who we happened to catch on her way into work on the morning we went to take pictures. A big thank you to her for chatting with and even giving us a quick tour of the telescope room!  What a treat! I’m still geeking out over it.

Interested in the Elgin Watch Factory that gave birth to this observatory? Check out this silent film about it from 1931, obstensibly made by the company itself essentially showcasing a day in the life of the factory.


 

Sources:

http://gis.hpa.state.il.us/hargis/Reports/PropertyInformationReport.aspx?refnum=201153

http://www.elginhistory.com/eaah/

Click to access 201153.pdf

http://www.historycolorado.org/oahp/classical-revival

https://www.architecture.com/Explore/ArchitecturalStyles/Classical.aspx

http://gis.hpa.state.il.us/hargis/

McAlister, Lee and Virginia. A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009.

Payne, W.W. “Elgin Observatory.” Popular Astronomy, January 1927. 1-10.