Tucked away in a suburban Pasadena community is the former office and personal observatory of one the most prolific American astrophysicists, George Ellery Hale. With the construction of Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin and the Mount Wilson and Palomar Observatories in California, Hale effectively built the world’s largest telescope three times over.
Built in 1924, the Hale Solar Laboratory features a solar telescope enclosed within a 14-foot-diameter dome, a library originally housing many of Hale’s original scientific journals and books.
The small observatory is of Spanish Colonial Revival design, complete with mission tiles and stone reliefs that Hale commissioned the sculptor Lee Lawrie to create. Hale’s interest in Egyptology is demonstrated in the casting above the main entrance, which depicts the sun’s rays ending in numerous hands grasping various Theban symbols. The relief is a tribute to Akhnaten, the King of Egypt and worshipper of the sun god, Aten. It is thought that this casting was made from King Tut’s tomb. Bas-relief sculpture inside the library by the contemporaneous artist, Lee Laurie, similarly celebrates the sun-worshipping culture of the Egyptians. The grounds were designed by Beatrix Farrand, one of this landscape architect’s few west coast gardens.
Hale’s list of scientific achievements is impressive, to say the least. He co-founded both the International Astronomical Union (the organization responsible for Pluto’s reclassification) and the Astrophysical Journal, the premier peer-reviewed astronomy publication in the United States. He was a trustee of the California Institute of Technology and was vocal in the formation of the National Research Council. His discovery of intense magnetic fields inside sunspots made him the first person to detect a magnetic field around an extraterrestrial body. Hale is also credited with the invention of spectroheliograph, an instrument that enables astronomers to make detailed observations of the sun’s chemical structure by photographing its light at a single wavelength.