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Lewis Morris Rutherfurd: The Stargazer on Second Avenue

Lewis Morris Rutherfurd (November 25, 1816 – May 30, 1892) was born in Morrisania, New York to a family who was already a familiar presence in American political history. His grandfather was U.S. Senator John Rutherfurd of New Jersey, whose own father, Lewis Morris, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. By all accounts, Morris Rutherfurd was destined for political and legal greatness but, instead, he found himself drawn to the sky above.

Lewis Morris Rutherfurd. Date unknown.

After graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1834, Morris Rutherfurd did in fact practice the law. One of his frequent collaborators was John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Upon Jay’s death, Morris Rutherfurd continued to work with esteemed legal minds such as Hamilton Fish, an eventual U.S. Senator from New York and Secretary of State under President Ulysses S. Grant.

He married Margaret Stuyvesant Chanler in 1841 and together they had seven children. Margaret was the niece and adopted daughter of Peter Gerard Stuyvesant, great-great-grandson of Peter Stuyvesant. In 1845, Peter Gerard Stuyvesant built a beautiful mansion on Second Avenue and Eleventh Street for use by himself and his second wife, Helena Rutherfurd. With Margaret as his only child, Gerard Stuyvesant, concerned about the continuation of the family name, agreed to leave one-third of his estate to Margaret and Lewis’ firstborn son on the condition that his name was changed from Stuyvesant Rutherfurd to Rutherfurd Stuyvesant. 

Gerard Stuyvesant passed away two years later, leaving the house on Second Avenue and a sizable estate to the newly-named, four-year-old Rutherfurd Stuyvesant. It was decided the house would be held in Lewis Morris Rutherfurd’s name until Rutherfurd Stuyvesant reached adulthood. Morris Rutherfurd and his family suddenly found themselves in possession of a grand home in New York. The house itself was known for its size and opulence, with the first story constructed from brownstone and the three upper stories built of red brick. The building’s glorious facade was often covered by the wisteria hanging from the balconies in the spring.

The Stuyvesant-Rutherfurd House on Second Avenue and Eleventh Street. Date unknown.

Despite the beauty of their new home, the family did not enjoy it for long. Margaret’s health was in shaky condition and, seeking the most qualified experts available, they traveled to Europe in 1849. Abandoning his law practice to care for his wife, Morris Rutherfurd soon found his hands too idle for comfort. He sought to learn from the best scientists Europe had to offer including the Italian astronomer Giovanni Amici, whose groundbreaking work on optics fascinated Morris Rutherfurd. 

Upon returning to New York in 1856, Morris Rutherfurd’s fascination with optical science continued, leading him to build a workshop and observatory in the backyard of the Second Avenue mansion. The observatory was a circular brick building of 20-feet internal diameter with a light revolving roof through which Morris Rutherfurd trained his eye firmly on the stars.

Two years after building the observatory, Morris Rutherfurd captured his first photographs of the moon. However, unsatisfied with the quality of the photographs taken through regular telescopes, he invented a lens system that would turn a regular telescope into a photographic one. He successfully tested his invention in 1860, photographing a solar eclipse from Labrador. His backyard observatory was not only the best-equipped private astronomical observatory in the country, but was also a revolutionary site for the science of astrophotography.

A view of the Moon. By Lewis Morris Rutherfurd. March 6, 1865. NY, NY.
Moon by Rutherfurd. Lewis Morris Rutherfurd. Processed circa 1870.

After years of capturing mesmerizing images of the sun, moon, and stars, Morris Rutherfurd created his final prints in 1877 after battling with his health. By 1884 he donated hundreds of photographs and instruments to Columbia University where he served as a trustee and helped establish the departments of geodesy and practical astronomy. Lewis Morris Rutherfurd and Margaret Stuyvesant Chanler remained in the house on Second Avenue until 1885 when they retired to the Stuyvesant Mansion in Tranquility, New Jersey. It was there that Morris Rutherfurd took his final breaths on May 30, 1892.

Lewis Morris Rutherfurd was a pioneering scientist whose contributions to astronomy and astrophotography are innumerable and invaluable. His time in the East Village is vital to our understanding of the space we find ourselves occupying, and reminds us that we can see the universe from our own backyards, even on Second Avenue, if we only look hard enough.

2 responses to “Lewis Morris Rutherfurd: The Stargazer on Second Avenue

  1. I am the great,great, great grandson of Lewis Morris Rutherfurd. While contributing to the biography of Lewis’s granddaughter, Muriel White Seherr Thoss, I visited this site. From the time I was a very little boy, til age 20, less so now, there is a fascination with the moon’s beauty. My family would have to satisfy my need to follow the moon by looking out of several windows. Whether genes, or a mutual love for the Orb of night, its draw is humbling. Thank you for this article. PMC

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