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Whitin Observatory

designLAB Architects

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Wellesley College

Project Status


Year Completed



9,000 sq. feet

Construction Cost


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Project Description

Greening a Landmark
Whitin Observatory has existed as a hidden landmark on Wellesley College’s campus for over 100 years, immersed in the woods of their extraordinary Arboretum. The classical white marble landmark, built in 1900, was built to house the best telescope of its time in New England. The challenge was to update the much loved - yet outdated - facility, while incorporating state of the art science teaching labs for Wellesley’s emerging program in environmental studies.

designLAB devised a complete re-organization which cut a new top-lit gallery corridor through the existing spaces creating a new path to the environmental studies classroom and access to their ‘field lab’, the Arboretum. The strategic ‘cut’ allowed the reveal of a buried original marble-clad façade within the new galley corridor. The collection of existing additions were re-clad in etched mirrored glass, the same material as the new additions, so the ‘new’ building composition was only marble and glass, rather than a collage of mismatched materials. The etched glass volumes appear ephemeral as they reflect the surrounding woodland showing deference to the solidity of the original stone structure.

A New Identity from Old to New
Together with the glazing sub-contractor, the design team developed a modification of ordinary storefront system mock-ups, used as a rainscreen and fitted with transparent and etched-mirrored glass. During the renovations, the original character of the 1900 and 1906 marble wings was restored, reinforcing their place as the true ‘home’ of astronomy.

The Result
Given its remote location, the Observatory was somewhat hidden and obscured to students who were not enrolled in the astronomy curriculum. Since completion, the observatory’s classrooms, both new and restored, have become popular places to learn for students from all majors. The project elevated the significance of the original landmark, important in the memory of many Wellesley alums and donors, while placing the College on the leading edge of programs addressing the issues of our environment.
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