In the village of Hastings-on-Hudson, a short train ride away from Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal, lies a nationally landmarked building known as Observatory Cottage. The charming two-floor cottage was once a residential home, passed down through family generations. In the 1990s, it was bequeathed to a group of local residents interested in preserving the history of their village. Now, Observatory Cottage houses the Hastings Historical Society, where a group of dedicated volunteers tend to an extensive physical archive of the town’s history, publish the monthly Hastings Historian Newsletter, and curate exhibits, open to the public, in the building’s historic interior.
During the preceding half-century, many local historians in Hastings-on-Hudson had worked independently out of their homes. But in 1961, a small group of Hastings residents decided it was necessary to establish an officially recognized organization. The Hastings Historical Society was officially incorporated by the NYS Board of Regents in 1971. During the 1980s the New York Times reported that the Society received an award for the excellence of its local history archive from the American Society of State and Local History. Theirs was the only historical society in the state and one of only 30 in the United States to receive an award of merit for the excellence of its local history archive. Judges stated that the Hastings Historical Society had a societal archive “equal or superior to the finest village or county archive in this country or Canada.”
A step back into the history of this bucolic cottage reveals a direct connection between this nationally landmarked repository of local history and the history of our neighborhoods.
The land on which the Observatory Cottage sits is part of a 20-acre plot once purchased by John William Draper — a groundbreaking scientist who is widely known as the first person to take a picture of the moon. Draper is well-known for the experiments he conducted from the roof of the NYU building that used to be on the East side of Washington Square Park in 1840.
Born in England, Draper had attended University College London to study chemistry. Following his father’s death in 1831, he relocated to the United States, where he continued his education at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Beginning in 1839, he became a professor of chemistry and botany at New York University, and ultimately helped to found NYU’s medical school, where he also taught.
While he continued to serve as a professor of chemistry at NYU until 1881, John William Draper also spent a significant period further up the Hudson River in Hastings, a two-square-mile village incorporated into the town of Greenburgh in Westchester County, New York. In 1867 he married a woman named Anna Palmer — the daughter of a wealthy lawyer who lived in Dobbs Ferry, a nearby village along the Hudson.
At this time, Draper was, as the Hastings Historical Society writes, “many years into his experiments with light, heat, and chemistry.” John’s son Henry had recently graduated from the NYU School of Medicine which Draper had helped found, and began to construct an observatory on the Draper property in Hastings.
“Built by a village carpenter whose name went unrecorded,” continues the report of the Society, “Henry’s observatory was an artfully constructed building with a revolving roof and a curving staircase leading to a viewing platform that encircled the room. By walking the treadmill — human powered, although they also tried using dogs — Henry and his brother Daniel ground lenses and mirrors for a 15.5 inch Newtonian telescope which was placed into the dome.” After construction of the Observatory was finished in 1860, Henry was able to shoot the clearest photos of the moon up to that point, and was able to “accomplish other feats of astrophotography and measurement.”
John William died on January 4, 1882, and left his estate to his daughter Dorothy Catherine. After she died, the land known as Draper Park and including the observatory came into possession of Henry’s youngest sister Antonia Draper Dixon.
Sadly, the larger observatory dome burned down in 1905. Dixon continued to adapt the space for her own dwelling, converting the former engine room, workroom, and darkroom of Draper’s observatory into a kitchen, dining room, and front hall, respectively. She also had added a second story with three bedrooms. Near her death in 1923, Dixon had planned to donate the building and its land to the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society with the hopes of their preserving the Cottage as a “historical or high art museum, reading room, and library” (a hope shared by several other of Draper’s descendants).
The Society lacked adequate financial resources to adapt the cottage into such an astronomical museum, however, so the land was converted into a public park in the 1930s, with the estate falling into the hands of the village.
With a grant from New York State, the village of Hastings-on-Hudson restored and painted the exterior of the cottage, and in 1994, village trustees offered the Historical Society a long-term rental agreement for the building. It had been designated a national historic landmark in 1975, and to this day is the home of a dedicated group of volunteers who comprise the Society.
On September 3, 1863, Henry Draper took a picture entitled “Moon Over Hastings;” the original glass negative of this view was given to the Smithsonian by the Hastings Historical Society in 1983. This world-renowned photograph demonstrates Draper’s amazing scientific, technological, and artistic advancements, as well as the subtle relationship between Greenwich Village and the village of Hastings-on-Hudson.
Draper’s descendants’ stipulations that the Observatory building be used as a “museum or library” are now carried out by the Hastings Historical Society, which welcomes guests to view its exhibits or pore over its archives. Meanwhile, the adjacent Draper Park provides village residents (and urban visitors) a “place of quiet enjoyment.”
The life and work of John William Draper will be on display as part of our 2021 Annual Benefit: VILLAGE VOICES. Our benefit will feature an engaging installation of exhibit boxes displayed throughout our neighborhoods featuring photographs, artifacts, and recorded narration that will provide entertaining and illuminating insight into the momentous heritage of the Village.
To explore the online archives of the Hastings-on-Hudson Historical Society or find out more about them, visit their website here.