The idea to restore the observatory atop the Kemper Hall Conference Center started on a bicycle ride in the mid 2000’s. Carthage College Professor of Physics and Astronomy Doug Arion passed Kemper Center almost daily on his bicycle commute to work, and decided to approach Kemper about the possibility of using the observatory for Carthage astronomy classes, as the a location for one on the Carthage College campus was unsuitable due to the amount of ambient light there. An exploratory committee was then formed to look in to the restoration and modernization of the facility.
Saving the existing dome was the first choice of the committee. Artist/Builder Rob Barrows was brought on as a consultant for the project, having great experience in historic renovations and construction, including the Tall Ship Denis Sullivan project in Milwaukee. Although after significant testing of the superstructure supporting the dome and determining that the existing facility was usable, the new equipment to be installed required a larger shutter in the dome, and it was decided that a new dome would be easier and more cost efficient solution.
Kemper Board Member Clarence Griffin then approached Carthage College President Greg Campbell about bringing the project to fruition, and they then added the County of Kenosha as a partner in the undertaking. It was agreed that Kenosha County would contribute the seed money for the project, Carthage College would provide and manage the mechanical and technical equipment and facilities, and Kemper Center would oversee the construction of the new facility and fund the administrative costs of the project. A classroom for the Carthage astronomy students and a control room for the new, automated telescope were also included in the proposal.
As in many renovation projects, unforeseen conditions were discovered that resulted in delays and cost overruns. It became a major challenge to comply with modern building and safety codes while retaining the historic architectural elements of the observatory. Many redesigns of the new observatory were necessary, and almost all improvements needed to be custom built. Mr. Griffin acted as coordinator for the entire project, meeting almost daily with contractors and raising additional funds necessary for completion. Many area companies also made sizable in-kind donations of services to finish the project.
The Griffin Observatory became operational on May 5, 2011. The official public grand opening of the observatory will be held on September 17, 2011 from 2:00 – 4:00pm. Carthage College astronomy classes will commence at Kemper this fall.