Bucharest Centennial: The Astronomic Observatory – the ship-shaped building financed by an admiral

Romania-Insider.com has started a series of articles about Bucharest landmarks of architecture or history, which have witnessed the last century of what is now the Romanian capital, and noteworthy people who have helped build the Romanian capital as it is today. This project is supported by the Bucharest City Hall through the Public Monuments and Touristic Heritage Administration (AMPT), within the cultural program Bucharest-Centennial.

Check the full series of articles dedicated to the Centennial on Romania-Insider.com here. 

The only astronomic observatory open to the public in Bucharest, the Admiral Vasile Urseanu Astronomic Observatory is one of the oldest institutions of this kind in the capital, opened a little while before the Great Union of 1918. The observatory carries the name of its founder, Admiral Vasile Urseanu, who financed the construction of the building where it is hosted and acquired a first telescope needed for the astronomic observations.

In 1908, Urseanu joined the Camille Flammarion Romanian Astronomical Society, which attempted to establish an astronomic observatory to help popularize the discipline. The observatory built by the admiral opened in 1910 and was a private observatory until 1916. Astronomy enthusiasts used to come here, while researchers went to the observatory on the Filaret Hill, where the Astronomic Institute of the Romanian Academy is now located.

It was not the only astronomic observatory in the Romanian principalities of the time. After the 1859 Union of the Romanian principalities, a first stage in the process of achieving the national unity that culminated with the Great Union of 1918, a provisional astronomic observatory was opened in Iași, in 1875. After the Great Union of 1918, another observatory opened in Cluj, in the 1920s.

Located on the Lascăr Catargiu Boulevard in Bucharest, the Admiral Vasile Urseanu Astronomic Observatory has a shape similar to that of a ship. The admiral wanted “to have the feeling of floating at sea when looking through the telescope.” Built by architect Ion D. Berindei, the building is decorated with several marine motifs, references to the profession of the founder. The observation point is placed at the building’s highest point, as it is for ships. In the case of the Observatory, it is a 5 meters dome. A Carl Zeiss telescope, with a diameter of 150 mm and focal length of 2.7 meters, was placed in the dome. The telescope was the third largest in the country when the Observatory opened. The dome, made of tin, has a shifting slot which allows for astronomy observations.

The building has two parts, which stand for an adaptation of French eclecticism to the local culture. Architect Berindei also worked on the project of the Palace of Culture in Iaşi, and designed the Assan House in the capital’s Lahovari Square, built for engineer and industrialist Bazil G. Assan, the Cantacuzino Palace (The House with Lions), today the George Enescu National Museum on Calea Victoriei, the building of the Very Little Theater, and the Cantacuzino Palace in Floreşti (The Little Trianon), among others.

After the death of admiral Urseanu in 1926, the astronomy-related activity of the group gathered around the Observatory came to an end, and the telescope purchased by the admiral was stored in the basement of the building. It was to regain its initial destination only 24 years later.

Seven years after the admiral passed away, his widow, Jeanne Urseanu, donated the building to the city of Bucharest to be kept as a public edifice. Beginning with that year, the building became the headquarters of the Pinacotheca of the City of Bucharest, established through a royal decree issued by King Carol II. The pinacotheca opened with some 100 exhibited works.

After the paintings of the pinacotheca were taken over by other cultural institutions, in 1950, in the Museum of Experimental Sciences opened in the edifice built by admiral Urseanu. In April 1950, the telescope was set up again and the Observatory reopened for the public.

The Museum of Experimental Sciences exhibited, among others, photos of the calendar-sanctuaries in Sarmizegetusa, a stone dial dating back to the 2ndcentury, discovered in Tomis, and various documents on the history of the astronomy society established by Victor Anestin. A first astronomy exhibition opened in 1952, based on photos and drawings resulting from the observations of those who undertook their activity at the observatory.

In 1960, the Observatory was equipped with a Zeiss 80/1200 mm equatorial mount and other new equipment. Beginning in 1968, the Bucharest Astro Club, a group of amateur astronomers associated with the institution, opened at the Observatory.

After 1990, the building was the headquarters of the Romanian Space Agency. In 1996, the Observatory reopened as a Municipal Astronomic Observatory.

The building, which withstood some large earthquakes, including the 7.2 one in March 1977, closed for consolidation, refurbishment and revamping in 2013, in a program financed with EU funds.

The Observatory reopened in 2016, endowed with a new telescope. In the period after 1990, the Observatory received several private donations of equipment and was endowed with a telescope for solar observations.

A presentation titled “Travel through Universe” was inaugurated in 2009, showcasing a virtual trip through the stars. It still draws a large crowd. A permanent astronomy exhibition, named “Discovering the Universe Together”, opened in September 2017. Periodically, the Observatory holds astronomy presentations for the public at the Museum of the City of Bucharest – the Șuțu Palace. The lens of admiral Urseanu can still be seen, from outside the Observatory building, as it is exhibited at one of the windows facing the Admiral Vasile Urseanu Street.

How to get to the Astronomic Observatory
The Observatory is located between Romană Square and Victoriei Square, at 21 Lascăr Catargiu Blvd. Bus lines: 300, 381 – Orlando station; subway: Romană Square and Victoriei Square. The observatory is open Wednesday to Sunday, starting 10:00. On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, it is open until 22:00 (21:15 entrance of last visitors)

Despre Observatorul Astronomic (About the Astronomic Observatory) at www.astro-urseanu.ro
Mihaela Stoica. Observatorul Astronomic, locul unde un amiral îndrăgostit de astre a scris istorie cu o lunetă de diametrul unei pizza mici (The Astronomic Observatory, the place where an admiral in love with the stars wrote history with a telescope with the diameter the size of a small pizza) at www.descopera.ro
Dan Berindei, Sebastian Bonifaciu. București. Ghid touristic (Bucharest. Tourist Guide). Sport – Turism Publishing House, 1978
Un arhitect pentru secole. Clădirile care fac cinste României (An architect for the centuries. The buildings that honor Romania) at digi24.ro
Observatorul  Astronomic Vasile Urseanu (Vasile Urseanu Astronomic Observatory) at credodesign.ro
Dan Uza. Care a fost primul observator astronomic din România? (Which was the first astronomic observatory in Romania?) at www.academia.edu

(photo: Inquam Photos – Octav Ganea)