Old Observatory

Also known as: The Observatory, Frederick R. Maxwell Hall, Old University of Alabama Observatory
N of University Blvd., on University of Alabama campus, University, Alabama

An astronomical observatory owned and operated by the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.


Old Observatory

Photo taken by WillyT

View this photo at bamarides.com



The Old University of Alabama Observatory, now known as Frederick R. Maxwell Hall, was an astronomical observatory owned and operated by the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Although no longer used as an observatory, the building has been restored and preserved. It currently houses the university's Creative Campus Assembly, an organization dedicated to building a collaborative environment between students, faculty, and the community. Significant for its architectural and historical importance, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places on January 14, 1972.


The Greek Revival-style observatory building was completed in 1844, though the equatorial mounted Troughton & Simms 8-inch (0.20 m) refracting telescope was not mounted until 1849. The observation room was built with a large central section, capped by a revolving 18 feet (5.5 m) diameter dome. At the west end of the building was a transit instrument room with a north-south slit in the roof. Opposite the transit room was an office. The transit room contained a Troughton and Simms transit circle with a 4-inch (0.10 m) objective and a focal length of 5 feet (1.5 m). It used a 4-foot (1.2 m) circle, readable to a single arc second.

The University of Alabama, converted to a military campus at the time, was largely destroyed during a Federal raid led by General John Croxton on April 4, 1865. The observatory was one of seven buildings on campus that escaped being burned to the ground, although it suffered extensive damage. Fortunately, the lens had been sent to nearby Bryce Hospital for safekeeping, although parts of the telescope were removed by some of the troops as trophies. The other campus buildings to survive the event were the President's Mansion (1841), Gorgas House (1829), the Little Round House (1860), and a few faculty residences.

Though the observatory and instruments had been damaged in the raid, the telescopes and observatory were still usable for teaching purposes until the 1890s. A new observatory was built in Gallalee Hall in 1949 and a new telescope was installed by 1950. The old observatory building was known simply as the Old Observatory until 1985, when it was renamed in honor of Frederick R. Maxwell, a retired consulting engineer for the university who had been responsible for protecting and preserving the remnants of the 1800s university campus. Following the renaming it was used to house the Computer Based Honors Program. It currently houses the university's Creative Campus Assembly.

National Register information 

Posted to the National Register of Historic Places on January 14, 1972
Reference number
Architectural style
Mid 19th Century Revival: Exotic Revival
Areas of significance
Education; Architecture
Level of significance
Evaluation criteria
A - Event; C - Design/Construction
Property type
Historic function
Research facility
Current function
Periods of significance
1850-1874; 1825-1849
Significant year

Update Log 

  • January 9, 2012: New photos from WillyT
  • May 27, 2011: Updated by WillyT: Added description