MY WORD: Northside school building goes down in his-story

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By Jayme Hackney

A recent post on Facebook displays a series of photos detailing the serial deconstruction of a landmark building in Shelbyville, a building that was once considered among the finest in the state. Soon those shattered bricks will fade into memory and be forgotten,  just the same as the grand cupola that once adorned its rooftop.

What, you have never heard of the cupola?  Indeed, I suspect most of our town’s residents are unaware of Northside’s cupola and the potential significance of this forgotten feature. Therefore, I will recount for you a story about “Northside” as told by my late father on many occasions, in memory and in honor of them both.

Our story begins with Shelbyville’s very own St. James Episcopal Church, which began around 1832 as an unorganized Episcopal group of roughly 30 people who called themselves “Zion Church.”  According to St. James Episcopal’s historical Web site, Zion Church was loosely affiliated with Shelby College. Shelby College was further described a, “...an Episcopal College with a Department of Religion that prepared men for the ministry and a Science and Engineering School boasting the 

world's third largest telescope manufactured in Munich, Germany.”

The Web pages at Genealogy Trails proclaim: “The cupola upon the top of what was then one of the finest buildings in Central Kentucky, was erected, and the telescope (through which distinguished 

astronomers viewed the eclipse of 1869; and other astronomical phenomena), was brought from a distance by the early officers of St. James College.”

So, “Northside” was originally called “Shelby College,” and it appears we owe much gratitude to the St. James Episcopal – Zion Church – for playing an important role in its construction.  Shelby College housed the world’s third-largest telescope that was used by many leading astronomers of the day. At first glance, this sounds mundane, but in actuality, these facts are nothing short of incredible!  Imagine the likes of Galileo descending upon Shelbyville, sitting atop Northside, meticulously observing and mapping the night sky, forever changing the view of our world and our 

place in the universe! Can you feel the sense of pride Shelbyville would experience over such an incredible occasion today?

But, alas, Galileo was dead and gone for more than 200 years. Moreover, what profound impact did the witnessing of a solar eclipse and a handful of “astronomical phenomena” really make in the lives of humanity since that time? Is it truly any surprise that the cupola was forgotten after all?

Well, yes frankly.

As fate would have it, soon after the solar eclipse of 1869, a young man named Edwin was born in Missouri and raised in Chicago.  However, his paternal grandmother lived on Bland Avenue in Shelbyville, and he was rumored to have summered at her home as a young man. Unfortunately, for young Edwin, Shelby College already had sold the famed 7½-inch, Munich-built equatorial refractor telescope to the University of Missouri amid a time of financial hardship. It was sold for the sum of $500 cash along with trade of their immensely inferior quality Fitz telescope.

Fortunately, for mankind, this Fitz telescope may have spawned an imagination and drive that changed much of what we know of our universe, the Earth and heavens. I am convinced that young Edwin frequented Shelby College’s cupola to view the summer nights’ sky through the Fitz telescope. If he did so, then he most likely dreamed of the chance to view far beyond the 

limitations of this “inferior” telescope…to see the universe with greater depth and clarity as those fortunate few who came before him had done using the “finer,” German-built “Merz & Soehne” telescope in that very same cupola.

As Edwin grew, so did his passion for the stars.  He longed to major in astronomy, but his father saw no future in such endeavors.  So, upon entering college, he majored in applied mathematics, physics and yes, astronomy. When  his father relocated the family to Shelbyville in 1909, Edwin soon followed, armed with a bachelor's degree in these sciences. It would mark the beginning of the end of the world –  as we know it. Edwin would go on to complete his doctorate, and this time he decided to focus directly on the night sky.

“So what?” you ask. Well, as one of my favorite storytellers, Paul Harvey, always quipped,  “And now for the rest of the story...”

Searching the Internet for a list of the most influential astronomers of all time, you will surely find Galileo.  You will also certainly find Edwin.  In fact, you already know of him, but you most likely know him by his last name, Hubble.

Yes, Edwin Powell Hubble, as in The Hubble Telescope, the finest telescope ever built.

Hubble formed theories and made discoveries that place him among those at the top of his field.  He was listed as the "third" most influential astronomer in my random Internet search. Hubble’s namesake telescope has provided mankind with unprecedented views into worlds and places beyond description outside our own Milky Way Galaxy.  It sees far beyond what the “lesser” Fitz would have shown; beyond even what the third largest telescope of his day would have been capable of viewing.

It’s almost as if the Hubble Telescope peers back across time and space, staring directly into young Edwin Hubble's imagination and in doing so, gives each of us a glimpse into the myriad visions he must have imagined long ago.

Even those with no appreciation whatsoever of the night sky are left speechless and awestruck at the images captured by his vision...and just perhaps it all started right here on a lone starry summer night, in  Shelbyville, on College Street, between 8th and 9th Streets,  in a long-forgotten cupola, atop a fine building whose name – Shelby College – was lost on most of us... until now.

So with that our “His-story” ends...and as dad would've asked, “I wonder whatever became of that Fitz telescope? And why don’t we have a museum showcasing these events? What do you suppose the Officers of St. James would say when they realized the impact of their efforts to obtain the world’s third-largest telescope? Could they have imagined that it would lead to the most striking views of the heavens ?”

Personally speaking, I’m glad my father was not here to witness the last bricks of Northside falling like shooting stars.

RIP Dad, Northside and  E. P. Hubble.


Jayme Hackney lives in Shelbyville. He can be reached at jwhackney69@yahoo.com.