Space Through Time at Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House
The sky, the “heavens,” or the stars have often been integral parts of the origin stories we tell as humans, both scientifically and culturally. Some things about the sky have remained constant over human timescales, some have changed slowly, and a few notable moments have caught everyone’s attention. Historically the stars have served as guideposts at every point of human existence. They have served as reliable compass points, providing navigation for ships over the waters, or enslaved people to freedom. Many have used the stars to predict weather patterns or the turning of the seasons.
As we consider stories at our historic places and sites, it is important to not only look at the ground beneath our feet, but also to the stars to fully understand the connections between place and time through space and time. This photo essay is a 240-year journey into the past that aligns significant events in Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House's history with milestones in the history of astronomy.
The images in this story are based on a program that occurred in December 2021 in partnership with the National Air and Space Museum as a celebration of the launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. This new space telescope will help us to look back in time to see some of the farthest galaxies and newest forming stars and planets in our universe. Observing those early stars and galaxies will help us better understand our origins, what led to the formation of our galaxy, Sun, and Earth, which allow us to be here today.
The images in this story are pulled using a program called Stellarium which allows users to see stars and other objects based on known orbits and motions. You can change the time and date up to 100,000 years into the past or future.
Mapping the Sky and the View from Dogue Run Farm (1781)
The view of the sky on March 8, 1781, as seen from Alexandria, Virginia. With no streetlights to create light pollution, a bright fuzzy band was clearly visible alongside Orion and countless other stars. Across the Atlantic, German sibling astronomers William and Caroline Herschel systematically mapped the sky to find the shape of the universe; what they actually found was the pancake-like shape of the Milky Way galaxy, which makes the bright band in the image above.
At this time, Woodlawn Plantation—which belonged to George Washington—was known as Dogue Run Farm, named after the indigenous Doeg people whose land it had been before it was taken and “granted” to Washington’s great-grandfather. Somewhere on the Chesapeake, under the glow of the almost-full moon, the Marquis de Lafayette prepared to sail toward Yorktown for the decisive battle of the American Revolution.
The Stars Above Angola and Enslaved People at Woodlawn (1803)
This image shows the sky above Luanda, Angola in 1803. Southern Hemisphere constellations, including the Southern Cross, are visible in the left half of the view, while Orion’s three-star belt is visible on the right. Nearly half of the people forcibly transported (by predominantly white enslavers) to the Chesapeake region in the late 18th century were taken from the Angola and Congo regions of Africa. While the stars they saw upon arrival would have changed, they brought their knowledge of the sky with them.
Some of these enslaved people built the mansion on the Dogue Run Farm property, renamed Woodlawn, which George Washington had gifted to his grand-step daughter Eleanor “Nelly” Lewis and her husband upon their marriage. While we do not have the names of those who built the house, here are some of the names of enslaved people we do have, each with their own story to tell: Lucy Lee, David Gray, Peter Twine, Hanson, Dolcey, and Sukey.
Carrington Solar Storm and the Civil War (1859)
On September 1, 1859, British astronomer Richard Carrington noticed a large sunspot group on the Sun and observed as two small beads of light briefly appeared among the spots. He did not know it, but he just witnessed the most powerful solar flare on record. That night, an enormous solar storm hit the Earth and caused worldwide impacts that lasted for days. The people at Woodlawn would have seen the aurora borealis above their heads, bright enough to read a newspaper at midnight. If they had tried to send a telegraph message, it would have been greatly delayed because of electrical disruptions in the long-distance wires.
Perhaps no greater disruption to people living in the United States as the 1850s closed was the impending Civil War. Following the deaths of the Lewises, Woodlawn had become a place for social “disruptors” where free Black people and Quakers lived in an integrated agricultural community to demonstrate that the United States economy did not need slavery as its bedrock. When the citizens of Fairfax voted on secession, the Accotink voting district (where Woodlawn was located) voted 76 percent against seceding.
The Andromeda Galaxy and the Underwood Purchase of Woodlawn (1924)
In the early 1920s, astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt noticed a timing pattern in stars that change brightness, called variable stars. Her discovery led to a pivotal “cosmic yardstick” that allowed astronomers to calculate the distances to far-away objects, something that had thus far been impossible. Within a few years, astronomer Edwin Hubble used this method to measure the distance to a variable star in the Andromeda galaxy, shown here, and determined that it was much too far away to be within our own Milky Way galaxy. It had to be its own cosmic metropolis of stars, unimaginably huge and far away. This realization completely changed how scientists perceived the scale of the universe and Earth’s place within it.
In 1925 Woodlawn was purchased by Senator Oscar Underwood who lived here until his death in 1929. Underwood, a 1912 Democratic presidential candidate, lost to Woodrow Wilson. Wilson later screened the first motion picture in the White House, The Birth of a Nation. The film promoted the “Lost Cause” narrative that many early U.S. historic preservationists rooted their work in and praised the Ku Klux Klan. In 1924 Underwood said, “It is either the Ku Klux Klan or the United States of America. Both cannot survive. Between the two, I choose my country."
The Hale Telescope and the Chartering of the National Trust (1949)
The year 1949 brought forward a number of different milestones. This was the year the National Trust for Historic Preservation was chartered by Congress under President Harry Truman. It was also the year of significant advances in astronomy.
On January 26, 1949, Edwin Hubble took the first images using the brand-new 200-inch Hale Telescope. He was observing a fuzzy nebula, its location in the sky shown here next to the constellation Orion. The Hale Telescope went on to observe many distant galaxies, whose light has taken millions of years to reach the Earth. Astronomy, and observing light from such far-away objects, is a way of looking back in time at snapshots of our cosmic history. The scientific study of when the universe formed, and how it has evolved, continues to this day.
The Space Age Begins and Woodlawn Becomes a National Trust Historic Site (1957)
On the night of October 4, 1957, something new appeared in the sky for viewers around the world. The first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, had been launched by the Soviet Union and was orbiting the Earth. While the basketball-sized Sputnik 1 was too small and faint to see, part of the rocket trailing behind it was visible from the ground. It marked the start of the Space Age, as suddenly one of the "stars” could turn out to be something sent up there by humans. Within a few years, dozens of satellites were orbiting the Earth and visible as faint, moving dots in the night sky.
By the turn of the 20th century, Woodlawn deteriorated and was only saved through the efforts of Elizabeth Sharpe, a Pennsylvania coal heiress. Bertha Underwood—wife of Senator Underwood—passed it on to the Woodlawn Public Foundation in 1948. The National Trust opened the property to the public in 1952 before fully acquiring the site in 1957 when it became the first of what are now 27 historic sites open to the public.
This area was, for a long time, thought to be an empty patch of sky. The two bright stars on the right are part of the Big Dipper, but toward the center of the view there is only darkness. In this small blank area, equivalent to looking through a drinking straw, the Hubble Space Telescope stared with its superior cameras for ten days in December of 1995. The image that came back astounded the science world; thousands of galaxies, many resembling our own Milky Way, filled the view. Known as the Hubble Deep Field, it remains one of the most consequential images in the history of astronomy.
Empty space to place an architectural gem is what the Trust was looking for in 1966 when it received Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey house. To save it from demolition because of its location along the planned route of Interstate 66, the National Trust moved it to Woodlawn. Nearly 30 years later in 1995, as Hubble was sending back its iconic images, the Pope-Leighey house was moved a second time to better preserve it on more stable ground at Woodlawn.
Total Solar Eclipse and Looking to Woodlawn’s Future (2017)
On August 21, 2017, the first total solar eclipse in a century was visible from the United States. People located within the narrow path of totality, where the Moon perfectly covered the entire Sun, could see the feathery upper atmosphere of the Sun and a sky dark enough to reveal stars in the middle of the day. Millions of people traveled so that they could witness this stunning astronomical event, and most described the experience as truly profound.
Many viewers of the eclipse sent their images in to citizen and community science projects, which provided valuable insights about the Sun’s atmosphere from across the country. The fact that this eclipse was able to bring out citizen scientists is not surprising. There is greater effort now by scientists and public historians to engage and to collaborate with people.
Today, Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House staff are committed to telling the full American story at their historic site. These efforts include reconsidering the appropriateness of weddings at a former site of enslavement and identifying descendants of not only the enslaved people but also others whose stories have not been shared or recognized. As with the solar eclipse, it is about building a community and partnerships so that more people can see themselves and their ancestors reflected at this historic site.
Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope.
Shauna Edson is the astronomy education program coordinator at the National Air and Space Museum, and Shawn Halifax is the executive director of Woodlawn and Pope-Leighey House.
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