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In 1893 the U. S. Naval Observatory moved to its present home on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC. For the first time the Observatory had ample grounds to set up instruments far from the reach of city lights and smog. The lens for the great 26-inch Alvan Clark equatorial refractor came up from Foggy Bottom, to be placed in a new building housing a (then) state-of-the-art Warner & Swasey mounting. The old 9.6-inch Merz refractor, which astronomer Asaph Hall was using when he was visited by President Lincoln in 1863, was mounted on the huge telescope to serve as its finder.

Meanwhile, back in the Main Building, a new telescope was erected on the roof for use as a secondary instrument to the Great Equatorial. The lens for this telescope, of 12-inch aperture, was also made by the firm of Alvan Clark & Sons, probably by their long-time master optician, C.A.R. Lundin. It was mounted on a German-style equatorial pedestal made by George Saegmüller of Washington. The footing for this pedestal is a 5-story hollow masonry pier, which passes through all of the intervening floors and is founded on a concrete pad in the basement. Here is the subject of our mystery.
The basement of the Observatory is a storehouse of time. Old instruments, documents, and other trappings of over a century of astronomical work are squirreled away in the many small storerooms and cubbyholes. Interspersed with these pieces of a bygone era are conduits for computer network cables, electrical wires, and telephone lines. A small room near the elevator has an even smaller doorway leading to a dark, circular cave-like space. As you enter this room and gaze upward in the dim light, you realize that you are looking up the pier of the 12-inch telescope. About 10 feet up the wall, you become aware of a large break in the symmetrical courses of bricks that make up the pier. You switch on your flashlight, and play it on the curious lump extending from the wall...and THIS is what you see....


....A sculpted block of limestone with the features of a decidedly 19th Century character!

Who is this a likeness of? We've been trying to figure that out for a long time. Since 1893, as a matter of fact! Speculation abounds. There are those who think it is the face of CAPT Frederick McNair, the Superintendent in charge of the Observatory when it occupied its new quarters. Others think it is Richard Morris Hunt, the architect who designed the Observatory's new buildings. Still others suggest that it may be a likeness of one of the stonemasons who built the pier and carved the blocks of fine marble that grace the Observatory's facade.
CAPT Frederick V. McNair, Superintendent, USNO, 1890 - 1894
Whoever it is, the Face isn't talking...although there are rumors of ghosts in the hallways late at night....


Commander, Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command | 1100 Balch Blvd. | Stennis Space Center, Mississippi 39529

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