mountain profile Institute for Astronomy University of Hawaii

A Permanent Facility for the Institute

Maintained by CGWW

Temporary accomodation, early 1970s

The IfA in 1978


A building to house our growing program had been in the University's plans since the Institute was formed in 1967, but as time passed the available land - where cattle grazed in open fields when I had arrived only a few years earlier – was assigned to others. The site finally allotted to us was in the then-new Mauka Campus and is fondly remembered by a few for the horse, permanently tethered there, that ate the canvas top of a staff member's convertible which he injudiciously parked in this bucolic patch of paradise. It was a surprisingly large lot and I was delighted to find that we could afford to be expansive in our planning - a highly unusual situation in Honolulu. We were told that all new research institutes were to be housed on this campus extension; however none ever joined us – at least while I was there – and I am not sure that any more were in fact formed. While the building was under construction we were to occupy three new "temporary" generic wooden structures, with three more promised for the following year.

We were all very engaged with the design - we wanted a building of which we could be proud. Our concept was an irregular arrangement of three buildings set around an expansive courtyard - an idea suggested by Charmian – but the architect’s initial response was a monolith of eight stories set directly in the middle of the property and this was roundly rejected by us all. Perhaps sensing that we were going to be difficult clients, the firm assigned a junior partner to the job. This person may or may not have had much sympathy for our ideas but he did take the basic concept and developed it into a fine design. The ground-breaking was led by Wytze Gorter, then Chancellor of UH-Manoa.

And indeed we did acquire a great home for the Institute, giving us all that I had hoped for. From the janitors on up we took great pride in it; I believe everyone felt a personal attachment to the building. To celebrate the completion the scientific staff put on a "house warming" to which we invited local merchants and homeowners in this largely residential district. The opening function was, like the building, a class act. And it was the first of many celebrations we held in the courtyard on velvet Hawaiian nights.

Being far from the center of the UH administration turned out to be more a blessing than a problem - insulating us even more from University politics. We especially liked the fact that we escaped the newly introduced parking fees - though that turned out to be an oversight that was corrected a few years later despite our bitter complaints and special pleading. The University grounds-staff were not overly interested in maintaining lawns and plantings so far from the main campus and our administrative officer, Bob LoForte, somehow managed to get dedicated gardeners. Bob (a former member of the Coast Guard who had fought in Vietnam) was totally committed to the well-being of our new building. As a sort of final seal of completion he and I affixed two bi-centenary stickers to the huge sliding glass doors that provide the main entry – they remain there at this writing nearly 30 years later.

The State had a policy of spending up to one percent of the construction cost on works of art for public buildings. I had always wanted to see a large tiled mosaic across the blank wall that formed one side of the courtyard. The Pleiades star field - said to have been used extensively by the Polynesian navigators - was a prime candidate. This was too prosaic for the responsible University committee, who favored a large bowl with different colored smokes swirling around inside - it was the 1970's after all! 'We were fortunate enough to have the eminent sculptor Otto Piene engaged for this task and he suggested an optical sculpture in the form of an arrangement of prisms set into the wall – representing the Pleiades constellation. However, there was not enough money to pay for the large prisms called for in the design, so it never did work optimally - though every now and again a beam of spectral purity would illuminate a wall or the courtyard floor or flash past one's eyes while walking from place to place. I think all of us who worked there found that it conveyed the sense of elation and of being upward bound, that I had wanted it to evoke. I hope that it continues to be a source of quiet pleasure and joy to those who work there.