Filed Under Science

Warner and Swasey Observatory

Cleveland's "Plumb Line to the Heavens"

On a high, grassy knoll overlooking East Cleveland stands the Warner & Swasey Observatory. Once a scientific landmark, today it is a bleak sentinel. Although it operated for more than sixty years, offering what the Plain Dealer called "a plumb line to the heavens," light pollution from a growing Cleveland reduced its usefulness with each passing year so that by midcentury it was no longer a reliable resource for astronomical research.

The Warner and Swasey Company, maker of machine tools and precision instruments, got its start in 1880 when Connecticut machinists Worcester Reed Warner and Ambrose Swasey decided to go into business for themselves. Moving to Cleveland, eventually they built a large factory on Carnegie Avenue at East 55th Street to manufacture turret lathes and telescopes. Their products found military uses during both world wars, and they built a number of telescopes for leading observatories, including the University of California's Lick Observatory, which reigned as the world's largest refracting telescope for about a decade in the late 19th century, and the U.S. Naval Observatory. Warner and Swasey operated in Cleveland until being bought out in 1980 by the Bendix Corporation.

Warner and Swasey became trustees of Case Institute of Technology. Among their many gifts to the institution was the Warner and Swasey Observatory. Designed by the renowned Cleveland firm of Walker and Weeks and situated some 270 feet above the level of Lake Erie, the observatory, which opened in 1920, was equipped with a Warner and Swasey-built 9.5-inch refractor. Unlike today's telescopes, which use mirrors to reflect light from objects in space to form an image, older refracting telescopes utilized a lens to refract, or bend, light and render an image.

The initial telescope was used until 1941, when the company delivered a much more powerful, 24-inch telescope, the Burrell Schmidt, housed in a second dome. The observatory mounted groundbreaking studies in the early 1950s, including one to prove the theory that the Milky Way was a spiral galaxy and another that found that cooler stars (red giants) were mainly near the center of the Milky Way. But these discoveries marked the twilight of the observatory's short-lived heyday. When light pollution--a common problem for observatories located near cities--became insurmountable in the 1950s, Case acquired a new site for the Burrell Schmidt telescope near the "chimney" of Geauga County, some thirty miles east of its original location. There it operated from 1957 until 1979, when it was again moved to Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona.

Meanwhile, the Warner and Swasey Observatory was outfitted with a 36-inch telescope. Hailed as the nation's finest for public viewing, it operated for more than twenty years until the observatory closed permanently in 1980, the same year that Warner and Swasey sold out to Bendix. Just as its maker's success led to a corporate takeover that ultimately brought its liquidation, the observatory itself succumbed to a byproduct of the relentless expansion of the city that had attracted two young machinists westward a century before.

Today one can still find the original refracting telescope built for the observatory. Since 1982 it has operated in a small dome atop Case Western Reserve University's Albert W. Smith Building.


"It Wasn't That Great a View" Barbara Wherley recalls her difficulty seeing anything very impressive through the telescope in a night sky compromised by city lights in the early 1960s. Source: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection


Warner and Swasey Observatory
Warner and Swasey Observatory This early view of the observatory shows a single dome. For the first nineteen years this dome housed a single 9.5-inch refracting telescope. During these years the sky above East Cleveland afforded a satisfactory number of clear nights for optimal viewing. In just three decades, this virtue disappeared beneath a regular pall of smog that reflected trapped city light, leading Case to seek a new site in Montville Township in northeastern Geauga County. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections
Lick Observatory Lithograph, 1889
Lick Observatory Lithograph, 1889 The Lick Telescope, built in 1888 by Warner and Swasey Company, was 57 feet long. It was the world's largest refracting telescope for nearly a decade after its completion. This is the same type of telescope built on a smaller scale in the Warner and Swasey Observatory three decades later. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-11323 Date: 1889
Construction of Second Dome, ca. 1939
Construction of Second Dome, ca. 1939 By 1941 the second dome at the observatory housed a powerful new Schmidt-type telescope, which enabled astronomers to survey a wider swath of sky than other types of telescopes available at the time. Thus began the most active and important era in the observatory's life in East Cleveland. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University. Library Special Collections Date: ca. 1939
Abandoned Warner and Swasey Factory
Abandoned Warner and Swasey Factory Located along the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks at the corner of Carnegie Avenue and East 55th Street, the old Warner and Swasey offices and factory once provided an anchor in the Central neighborhood. Creator: Xiaofan Luo on Flickr (Creative Commons)
Kitt Peak National Observatory
Kitt Peak National Observatory In 1979 the Burrell telescope, originally installed forty years earlier in the second dome of the Warner and Swasey Observatory in East Cleveland and moved in 1957 to CWRU's Nassau Station in northeastern Geauga County, was transported to Kitt Peak outside Tucson, Arizona. Creator: Daniel Ramirez via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Entrance to Observatory
Entrance to Observatory The weed-strewn steps and weathered stone around the entrance to the Warner and Swasey Observatory reflects its more than thirty-five years of abandonment. Creator: J. Mark Souther Date: July 19, 2016
Abandoned Observatory
Abandoned Observatory This recent view of the Warner and Swasey Observatory shows its unkempt appearance today. The facility lost its fight to remain viable as more and more suburban sources of artificial light brightened the night sky. The problem of light pollution, once confined to major metropolitan centers, has become almost inescapable nationwide in recent years. In a suburban nation, hardly anywhere experiences true darkness. Creator: J. Mark Souther Date: July 19, 2016
Retractable Dome
Retractable Dome Lying in partial ruin, the retractable dome, built in 1941 as a home for the Burrell Schmidt telescope, is nothing but an empty shell today. Creator: Benjamin Chodroff via Flickr (Creative Commons)


Cleveland State University. Michael Schwartz Library. Division of Special Collections. Cleveland Press Collection. | The observatory is abandoned and in a state of ruin.


J. Mark Souther, “Warner and Swasey Observatory,” Cleveland Historical, accessed April 21, 2024,