Construction of the Observatory's principal buildings began in 1789, using plans drawn up by Francis Johnston, one of Ireland's most celebrated architects, a native of Kilmore, County Armagh who in later years became known as `Ireland's Wren'. The main buildings, which are of considerable architectural merit, comprise in their original designation a residence for the Astronomer, a meridian room, a library and several telescope domes.
The interior of the residence is one of only a handful of eighteenth-century domestic interiors to survive in Northern Ireland and is remarkable for the quality of its joinery and fittings. It houses a valuable collection of historic clocks, archives and scientific instruments, together with the paraphernalia of modern astronomical research, including a recently obtained Origin2000 supercomputer. The conjunction of the `old' and `new' at Armagh, and the fact that the building is still used for its original purpose, gives the Armagh Observatory a unique capacity to provide -- at essentially zero cost to the organization -- the `museum' pieces of tomorrow.
The telescope domes include: (1) the 1790 dome, completed in 1793, which is believed to be the second earliest surviving astronomical dome in the world and the earliest to survive with its original equipment (namely, the 1795 Troughton Equatorial Telescope) preserved in situ; (2) the 1827 dome, built originally to house a Herschel telescope but shortly thereafter converted for the 15-inch Grubb Reflector; (3) the Robinson Memorial Dome, which was built to house the 10-inch Grubb Refractor; and (4) a utility (Schmidt) dome built in 1950 to house the modified late nineteenth-century Calver Newtonian reflector, which had been converted that year to a 12/18-inch Schmidt photographic telescope.
Restoration of the 1790 dome and the Troughton Equatorial Telescope was completed in 1992. A programme of restoration of the six eighteenth-century astronomical regulators (clocks) belonging to the Observatory has also been largely completed and provision made for their preservation and display to the public within the main building. A number of items of scientific equipment were re-assembled and restored for the Bicentenary Exhibition in the Armagh County Museum, the Ulster Museum, Birr Castle, and the National Museum of Ireland during 1990-1991. Several of these artefacts are now on permanent display at the Observatory and have occasionally been placed on loan to exhibitions elsewhere. The Observatory's heritage policy is to place restored instruments in their original location in the building so far as possible, so that visitors may more clearly understand the context of their use.
A notable achievement during 2000 was Astronomer John Butler's success with another Heritage Lottery Fund application (``Conservation of Historic Telescopes and Domes of Armagh Observatory'', reference HF-00-00310) for funds to restore three of the Observatory's historic telescope domes and their associated instruments.
The total estimated cost of this project is £381,375, the bulk of which (£286,000) will be provided by the HLF. The DCAL has been asked to provide the necessary balance of ~£96,000, but has so far been unable to commit any additional funds to the restoration programme. The project will include (1) the Robinson Memorial Dome (1885), a listed building of considerable architectural merit, and the 10-inch Grubb telescope that it protects; (2) the 1827 Dome and its 15-inch equatorial reflecting telescope, which is the earliest example of a large equatorial reflector with a clock drive and of quite exceptional interest in the development of telescope design; and (3) the 18-inch Calver Telescope, currently converted for use as a Schmidt photographic telescope, and its dome.
The Robinson and Schmidt domes are now in a severe state of dilapidation and in urgent need of repair and reconstruction, while the 1827 dome is also in need of restoration and its original telescope (the 15-inch Grubb Equatorial Reflector) in pieces. The success of the HLF-funded project will ensure the survival of these unique and historically valuable telescopes and domes well into the 21st century.
Following the death in December 1999 of Mrs Sylvia Lindsay, the wife of the former Director (Dr Eric Lindsay), her surviving sister Mrs Edith Davis kindly donated a number of memorabilia and family photographs associated with the Observatory during the important Lindsay era (1937-1974). Mrs Davis also donated an oil painting showing the south side of the main residence during the early 1950s, which is on display in the main entrance of the Observatory.
The first public donation to the historic telescopes and domes project, namely £50, was received early in 2000 from a well known local amateur astronomer.