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‘It brings such a joy to our hearts’: Canada honours national historic significance of Richmond Hill David Dunlap Observatory

The city staff, council members, residents and the stargazing community got to celebrate the national recognition in person
June 22, 2022
Sheila Wang

While a sudden rainstorm took a crowd gathered at the David Dunlap Observatory by surprise, it did nothing to dampen their enthusiasm to commemorate the national historic significance of the iconic site in Richmond Hill.

In the morning of June 15, the 87-year-old observatory received a plaque from the Government of Canada to honour its national historic designation at a special unveiling ceremony.

The city-owned public amenity was declared a national historic site in 2019 to recognize its historic value and unique contribution to science. Almost three years later, the city staff, council members, residents and the stargazing community got to celebrate the national recognition in person.

“It just brings such a joy to our hearts because this is for the community,” said Richmond Hill MP Majid Jowhari. “This is when you recognize a community, when you recognize the constituents, when we recognize the organizations that they’ve been advocating for this for a long time.” Jowhari unveiled the commemorative plaque on behalf of the Honourable Steven Guilbeault, minister of environment and climate change and responsible for Parks Canada.

The 76.5-hectare observatory property, bordered by Hillsview Drive, Bayview Avenue, 16th Avenue and the CN Railway line, is home to the largest optical telescope on Canadian soil with a primary mirror measuring more than 1.88 metres.

Built on a farmstead, it was donated to the University of Toronto in the name of David Dunlap, who became wealthy in mining ventures and developed an interest in astronomy.

The reflector telescope -- the second largest in the world when it was opened in 1935 -- has been involved in a great number of significant studies in radio astronomy and became the first evidence, Cygnus X-1 was a black hole.

“The Richmond Hill David Dunlap Observatory is one of the city’s well-kept secrets, but word is getting out,” Mayor David West told the audience at the ceremony. He noted, it is becoming a very popular site for summer camps, sold-out astronomy programs and wedding proposals.

The unique property has also become a sought-after filming site for commercials and TV series including Netflix hit show “The Umbrella Academy.”

Richmond Hill and the community had fought an uphill battle to preserve the observatory property since 2007 when U of T announced its plan to sell the land.

When Corsica Developments Inc. -- a Metrus affiliate -- took over the property in 2008, the community raised grave concerns about the sale and the development proposal.

It was in 2016 when Richmond Hill saved more than half of the original site -- including the park, the observatory and the administration building -- following a mediated settlement at the Ontario Municipal Board.

For astronomer Ian Shelton, the national recognition was long overdue.

Shelton is the chair of the David Dunlap Observatory Defenders, one of the organizations that have fought to preserve the observatory property. “Fundamental science like astronomy requires vision by people that might not understand it, but realize that it’s important,” Shelton said. “My hope is that this [recognition] will sort of be the stimulus to help us support it, to show that we can run the programs here, which we introduce people to the next aspect.”

In 2021, Richmond Hill completed an extensive conservation of the exteriors of both the administration building the observatory dome to restore and preserve the heritage features.

Visitors can access the observatory dome to view the telescope by registering for programs and events offered by the Toronto Chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and the David Dunlap Observatory Defenders.

With 2.25-km trails newly constructed at the site, Mayor West said the city will continue to partner with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority to preserve and enhance the surrounding natural forest, and to restore it to a healthy state including new park entrance features, a pedestrian overpass and more trails in the coming years.