Millionaire James Irving Holcomb, who made his fortune through the Holcomb & Hoke Manufacturing Company, which sold popcorn machines, funded the building of Butler University’s $500,000 observatory and planetarium, named in his honor and opened in 1954. The observatory’s 38-inch Cassegrainian telescope, constructed by the J. W. Fecker Co. of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, was then the ninth-largest in the United States and remains the largest in Indiana.

Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium
Holcomb Observatory and Planetarium at Bulter University Credit: Peetlesnumber1 via Wikimedia Commons View Source

Architect Robert Frost Daggett planned the observatory with the assistance of Butler’s superintendent of buildings and grounds. Built of Indiana limestone, the observatory features a lobby, lecture room, and clock room, with 13 clocks displaying half of the world’s 24 standard time zones and Indianapolis time. The telescope is supported by a 21-ton concrete pad resting on four steel columns, preventing it from swaying.

The lobby floor, designed by Garo Z. Antreasian, a former Indiana University Herron School of Art instructor, is made of colored terrazzo. Armand N. Spitz, a leading designer and manufacturer of planetariums, designed the Holcomb Observatory’s planetarium.

The planetarium has undergone numerous renovations throughout the years. An aluminum dome replaced the original wooden dome of the building, while equipment has been replaced and updated. Between 2015 and 2019, Butler engaged Astronomical Consultants and Bowen Technovation to upgrade the facility. Refurbishment of the telescope cost $425,000, and the planetarium was completely restored and overhauled. The planetarium is completely digital, and the full-dome theater provides an immersive experience for visitors.

Holcomb Observatory is central to Butler’s astronomy program. Public tours are conducted as are planetarium shows.

Revised February 2021

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