Campus mysteries, part 2

Part two: The Collegian delves into the history of the observation deck jutting from McLane Hall’s roof

Juan Hernandez parks his bicycle outside the D wing of the McLane Hall building every Wednesday. As a civil engineering student, Hernandez, 22, often finds himself in this area of campus.

But he’s never noticed the 10-foot tall, metal, plank-like structure protruding from the roof of Room 162, the D wing’s lecture hall. None of his friends have noticed the mysterious object either.

“Is it part of the air conditioning unit?” Hernandez asked.

Far from it, according to retired physics professor John Donaldson. It’s actually exactly what it looks like: an observation deck.

“It was Ralph Jack’s little project. An old Navy man,” Donaldson said.

Donaldson taught in the physics department for more than 45 years. He arrived at Fresno State two months before Jack retired in 1956.

“Ralph was chair of the physics department at the time,” Donaldson said. “He would stand up there on that thing and just watch people. It originally had a purpose, but was never used.”

The plank looks like something right off the top of a submarine. In the middle of it is a four-foot pole that supports a round, metal plate. Donaldson says the plate was meant to hold a heliostat.

“A heliostat is a motor-driven device that uses mirrors to track the movement of the sun,” Donaldson said.

The heliostat would have directed sunlight through a hole in roof into the lecture hall below. The sunlight could then be split with a prism and used to teach students about the visible light spectrum.

But the heliostat was never constructed and the hole never drilled.

“It just never happened,” Donaldson said. “For one reason or another.”

School year after school year, the structure sat atop the roof, unused and unnoticed. That is until astronomy professors began using it as an observation area for their telescopes.

Fredrick Ringwald, an associate professor of physics and director of the campus observatory, teaches a majority of his classes in Room 162, including astronomy.

“Professor [Raymond] Hall used to have a telescope up there,” Ringwald said. “He was quite fond of it. He used it to observe Halley’s comet in 1986.”

The telescope used to be mounted to the metal plate in the center of the plank so an observer could rotate around 360 degrees.

“It was a really horrible place for a telescope,” Ringwald said. “The trees would block your view, and during the day the roof soaks up all the sunlight and at night it all radiates out creating a very undesirable haze.”

Major leaking in the roof forced the university to make repairs last spring. Prior to that, the roof had become too unsafe to walk on, resulting in the abandonment of the metal plank once again.

Thanks to the Downing Planetarium and its companion campus observatory there is now little use for the structure. Could the heliostat concept make a comeback? Not likely, according to Ringwald.

“I have seen similar exhibits elsewhere and they are quite complicated and require a lot of maintenance,” Ringwald said. “There are easier ways to learn about the light spectrum.”

While there are no current uses or future plans for the metal plank, it will undoubtedly remain atop the D wing of McLane Hall, looming over Room 162 and continuing to mystify students who pass by.

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