First owner built observatory in house's rooftop A HEAVENLY HOME

March 23, 1995|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

The new owners of a stone-and-stucco Tudor home in Baltimore will get four bedrooms, three baths and a window on the universe.

The house in Original Northwood is equipped with a rooftop observatory built in 1937 by Joseph L. Woods, a toy manufacturer and amateur astronomer who spent long nights in the coppered dome photographing variable stars in cooperation with Ivy League researchers. His work was once exhibited in Paris.

The house and observatory, complete with a neglected 58-year-old reflector telescope, were purchased this week for $153,000 by Robert and Tracey Kean, who live five doors up Westview Road.

Neither is an astronomer, said Ms. Kean, but "we would want to keep the telescope with the house." Astronomy "will be a new interest."

The Keans are corporate executives. She works for MBNA America in Newark, Del., and he is with the Arundel Corp.

"We've always been fans of the houses in Northwood . . . and we have just been waiting for that house to come on the market," Ms. Kean said. "It is certainly a very unique property."

The current owner, Russell Moran, 86, is moving to smaller quarters after 35 years in the house.

The home's first owner made it a place for significant research. Mr. Woods "was particularly interested in photometry [the measurement of star brightness] and variable stars. It was serious work," said Dr. Richard Pembroke, a longtime member of the Baltimore Astronomical Society.

Variable stars dim periodically as they are eclipsed by dark companion stars; others brighten as matter from the companions falls into them. Many of the early observations were done by a network of amateurs, in conjunction with big institutions. Mr. Woods had ties to Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania.

A few other amateur astronomers in the Baltimore area built their own observatories, Dr. Pembroke said. But none was quite as grand as Mr. Woods'. All of them have since been overtaken by urbanization and increasing light pollution.

Mr. Woods was a skilled machinist and president of Winchester and Woods Inc., a maker of toy watches. He had fallen in love with astronomy as a boy, and as an adult built his first observatory in Sykesville.

By 1936, however, he had tired of the long nightly drive from Baltimore. He bought the Westview Road house, at what was then the edge of urban Baltimore. Then he bought the adjoining lot and built a large, square stone addition in 1937.

It included a first-floor art studio with an 11-foot ceiling, a study and darkroom on the second floor, and the observatory on the roof.

His work in what was known as the Northwood Observatory was highly respected, and the spot became a regular meeting place for members of the Maryland Academy of Science. Mr. Woods and other members would often combine their business with pleasure.

"Woods always claimed you can't see stars without drinking a couple of beers," said Mr. Moran, a retired Armco Steel metallurgist.

Mr. Woods died in 1963, three years after he sold the house and observatory to Mr. Moran for $33,000.

Although Mr. Woods had discouraged visitors because they interrupted his work, Mr. Moran and his wife invited scout groups NTC in to peer through their telescope and earn merit badges. For a time, he said, the city gave them a sizable property tax break in return.

Mr. Moran said he bought the place largely to indulge a lifelong fascination with astronomy. "I'm wondering all the time. I'm curious," he said. "I used to go up there [to the observatory] nightly."

Once he decided to sell, the house was on the market just four days before the Keans' successful bid came in, said Ted Stewart, agent for O'Conor, Piper & Flynn in Roland Park.

During the brief time the house was open to prospective buyers, Forrest Hamilton and two companions climbed the narrow attic stairs and pushed through the trapdoors that open up onto the observatory floor.

Mr. Hamilton is an amateur astronomer and telescope maker who earns his living as an operations specialist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. He helps to command the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope.

Brushing aside cobwebs in the darkness, the visitors took their bearings with a flashlight. Then they threw open the four doors that open the rotating dome to the sky, flooding the 10-foot-wide circular room with light.

At the center stood Mr. Woods' 51-inch-long Newtonian telescope, covered by a plastic rain poncho. It was very dusty. Its brass fittings and the "equatorial" mount that allowed it to swing across the sky with the stars were badly in need of polishing and lubrication. But it all appeared fundamentally sound.

"If you like classy 'scopes, this is a nice one," Mr. Hamilton said. "It's in fairly decent shape."

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