Palomar Observatory is rare among scientific facilities in that there is a very clear design thread running through all the observatory buildings. This thread is due to the observatory's chief architect, Russell W. Porter. One of Porter's many talents was architecture, in which he received formal education from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Palomar Observatory layout and building design was among Porter's primary assignments from George Hale after joining the 200-inch project in 1929.
In 1935 Porter visited the Palomar site to survey the undeveloped plateau where the observatory was to be constructed. During his stay, he developed a sense for the site topography, and how the various observatory elements (telescopes, staff and astronomer housing, service facilities) would be positioned on the property. Back in Pasadena, he developed a site contour map to inform his site layout and architectural designs.
Porter chose Art Deco as the architectural style for the Palomar buildings (along with the machine/instrument and optical shops at Caltech—the latter where the 200-inch primary mirror was figured). It is reasonable to assume that Porter was influenced in his choice of Art Deco by its prevalence in Southern California architecture in the 1920s and 30s. The Los Angeles area where Porter lived and worked had undergone a boom in Art Deco construction in that period, and the modernity and simplicity of more understated Art Deco influences must have appealed to Porter's architectural and engineering aesthetics. Further, Porter looked to distinguish the appearance of the Palomar designs relative to sister observatories such as Mt. Wilson, whose style he specifically called out as an unfavorable design contrast.MORE
Russell Williams Porter was an American artist, engineer, architect, amateur astronomer and telescope builder, and Arctic explorer. Porter already had an accomplished career in several of these fields before joining the Palomar development team in 1929. Working at Caltech, Porter contributed to the optical and instrument engineering, telescope design, and observatory architecture. During the conceptual development of the 200-inch Hale telescope Porter produced extremely detailed cutaway drawings that were noted for their precision and beauty. Porter's designs were vital to the success of the Hale, which was dedicated in 1948.
Here on display in the Hale gallery are four of our favorite Porter drawings, depicting important engineering, optical, and observational perspectives on Palomar telescopes. To the engineer's eye Porter's ability to capture the subject's structure and function provide remarkable insight into their nature. But Porter drawings are also a unique art form, stripping away the superficial to expose the elegance and beauty of his subject.