The Gate of the Silver Key

“Look! through that window shine the stars of eternal night. Even now they are shining above the scenes you have known and cherished, drinking of their charm that they may shine more lovely over the gardens of dream. There is Antares—he is winking at this moment over the roofs of Tremont Street, and you could see him from your window on Beacon Hill…”
-H.P. Lovecraft, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

There’s a tradition, at least in journalism, that I should lead into talking about my experiences in another city by citing some pithy wisdom from the cab-driver who took me into town from the airport. However, the cabbie who drove me into downtown Providence last month was completely intent on a game on the radio, and all I can tell you is that he wore a Blue Jays cap. That’s a point in his favour, but it’s not much of a story. (Disclaimer: I award this point through love of Toronto, my home for close to 10 years, and not out of any actual baseball-related feels or opinions, which I don’t really have.)

The principal reason I went to Providence was for NecronomiCon, a big celebration of all things related to horror author (and local history expert) H.P. Lovecraft. Most of that fell outside the rubric of this blog, but there were a few intriguing points of contact. One of them was the Ladd Observatory.

H.P. Lovecraft's "Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy"

The Ladd is of the same vintage as HPL himself: he was born in 1890 and the observatory opened in 1891. Lovecraft’s parents knew the director, Winslow Upton, and so the young Lovecraft got a key to the observatory. A key! To an observatory! After that he spent a great deal of time there, which I can well believe. It’s not a huge observatory, but a 12″ refractor is pretty respectable, and early in the 20th century the hill it’s perched on, some ways from central Providence, must have offered great viewing. That’s not so now, but it’s still lovingly maintained and used for educational purposes, and it held an open house Thursday evening at the convention highlighting Lovecraft’s long connection with it.

I had expected to see some interesting sights, but hadn’t anticipated an enthusiastic and informed tour of the place. Among other cool things, a small telescope means one person can (in principle) operate it! I was allowed to pull on the ropes to rotate the observatory dome, which was a lot of fun. I kept saying “amazing”, which probably got repetitive, but it was. Although really I think all observatories are amazing places, by nature. When I was small my mother would sometimes take me to open houses at the Cronyn Observatory at Western; which is of no particular architectural or historical interest, but it is the place I put my eye to an eyepiece and saw an ice-giant (though I can no longer recall which one) shimmering blue and green against the stars. That moment remains vivid as yesterday.

By all accounts the Ladd Observatory was something of a refuge for Lovecraft, who had some bad family stuff going on. He cited, as reasons to go on living through a tough time, “beauty and curiosity”. (Which is what I try to foreground in this blog.) In fact he leaned towards a career in science, but was defeated, I’m informed, by math. (This may have been poor aptitude for math, or it may have been lousy math teaching, which no doubt has been plentiful in all times and places, alas.) But his devotion to astronomy was such that he wrote, hand-illustrated, and published his own Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy when not yet in his teens. Several issues are still preserved in his papers at Brown University, and during the convention they were on display at the Providence Athenaeum, along with a number of astronomy books from Lovecraft’s library. Here, for instance, he’s soliciting observations of the Leonid meteor shower – part of that same crowd-sourced science endeavour going on since at least 1833 on this continent (as touched on in earlier post, Misumena vatia and Dr. Olmsted”):
H.P. Lovecraft's "Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy"

It was something to walk up through College Hill while night was falling, through streets of old houses and trees, and then see the observatory dome, not approaching slowly but all of a sudden right there, looming against the purpling sky. Looming friendly-like, yes, but definitely looming. And then in the last of the twilight to stop at Prospect Terrace – another favourite haunt of HPL’s – overlooking downtown and the state-house, and to watch the final beams with a mix of local denizens, frat boys, bohemians, and a great big statue of Roger Williams, in

… that universal haven of the odd, the free, and the dissenting.
– HPL, “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Sunset, Prospect Terrace

Many thanks to Francine for the tour. There’s at least one more Providence trip post in the works, since I took one day to rent a bike and ride out along the Blackstone River, taking in the Lime Rock Preserve and its diversity of ferns; so, stay tuned.


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Filed under Expeditions, Places of Science

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