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  • Ilinca Stroe

A Star-Bound House: The Astronomical Observatory Admiral “Vasile Urseanu”

Out of a love of sea a star-bound house was born: the Astronomical Observatory in Bucharest. It was 1908 when Admiral Vasile Urseanu was elected the President of the “Camille Flammarion” Romanian Astronomical Society (founded by Victor Anestin), and the new President pledged to finance the construction of a headquarters for the Society.

The Admiral (1848-1926) was a man of his word. A graduate of the “Sfântul Sava” high school in Bucharest, he completed his military studies at the Brest Naval School, worked with the French Navy, fought and was decorated in Romania’s Independence War (1877-1878). After the war he was commissioned to supervise the building of Romania’s famous brig “Mircea” in London [1], he helped found the Romanian commercial navy, and on board the battleship “Elisabeta” he sailed across the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the North Sea and the Baltic, in the longest voyage made by a Romanian warship. [2]

The Admiral was a great lover of the sea. No wonder, then, that when he entrusted architect I.D. Berindei with building the promised headquarters of the Romanian Astronomical Society on Boulevard Lascăr Catargiu in Bucharest, he preferred the building to be shaped like a ship. Berindei, who also created masterpieces like the Palace of Culture in Iaşi and the Cantacuzino Palace (“House with Lions”) on Calea Victoriei in Bucharest [3], employed the style of French eclecticism to erect an exquisite house decorated with maritime motifs (sea gods, dolphins), endowed with a superb interior staircase, and having a dome which hosted the first stargazing observations by dint of a small pizza-sized (15-centimetre diameter) Zeiss telescope that magnifies 450 times the cosmic objects on which it’s focused.

The building was erected between 1908 and 1910, and inaugurated in 1910, as the autumn issue of the “Orion” magazine of the Astronomical Society announced. It was designed as a home to amateur astronomers, a sky observation hub and a place to popularise astronomical research and discoveries. “It is clear that [Urseanu] built this building thinking of the sea and his main profession,” Mr Andrian Şonka, current staff at the Observatory, explains. “There are no astronomical motifs on the building. There is, however, the [5-metre] dome . . . which shows that this house is an observatory. The admiral had a pretty large terrace where one could stay and observe the sky. Next to the terrace there is a circular room with a rotating metal dome and a hatch that goes up to reveal the interior telescope, which is a heavy one. It’s placed on a very, very heavy counterweight. It was lifted with a crane. Everything was ordered from Germany, the dome plus the clockwork system and the telescope....” [4]

Badly deteriorated in recent times, the building, which was donated by Urseanu’s widow to the city of Bucharest, was restored between 2013-2016 via the EU-funded REGIO Programme, the cost of the works amounting to 11,100,000 RON (around 2,300,000 euro). Today it can be visited Wednesday to Sunday starting 10 am, with evening-time sessions of sky observation. A ticket costs 5 RON – a convenient price to pay in order to experience the good Admiral’s feeling: “One doesn’t do navigation only on water,” the Admiral used to say. “Sky observations must be done on land, too. As you can see, I built my house in the shape of a yacht, with an observatory’s dome, so that even while I’m carrying out observations I feel I’m floating at sea, too!” [6]

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