Cabin Fever

By Kevin Schindler and Lauren Amundson

On November 17 and 18, 2020, a piece of Lowell Observatory history disappeared without much fanfare. A building known variously as the Burnham Cabin, the Skiff Residence, and the Cottage was demolished by the Lowell grounds crew. It had fallen into disrepair and become a safety hazard, and it was time to say goodbye. Despite its small size, the building has an interesting history.

In 1924, Percival Lowell’s widow, Constance, decided to build a house for janitor/handyman JW Bailey. She ordered a four-room, pre-cut house from Pacific Ready-Cut Homes. The house was erected near the northeast corner of the Administration (Slipher) Building and about twenty feet from the garage for the observatory’s Stevens Duryea touring car (this garage is long gone; the house was enlarged in 1983 and astronomer Brian Skiff now lives here). Material for a garage came with the house, and Mrs. Lowell decided to use it not as a garage, but as a lunch room for shop men Stanley Sykes and EC Mills.

As a Lunch Room

Mrs. Lowell directed the building to be erected just south of the old shop. Later, the Aeronautical Chart and Information Center (ACIC) was in this space. While the ACIC extension, added in 1965, remains as the Business Office Building (BOB), that original ACIC office/shop, to the west of the BOB, no longer stands. The shop men didn’t often use the house as a lunch room because it was too much trouble to heat it in the winter.

As a Residence

Plumbing was added to the structure in the 1930s and it then became a residence, initially for groundskeeper Mr. Wier.

In the mid-1940s, Charles Kent and his family lived there for several years while he went to NAU and worked part-time at Lowell as janitor/groundskeeper. Another room and a larger bathroom were added during the Kents’ stay.

The next residents were Nora Byrd and her daughter. Byrd was the observatory’s secretary, and she also worked as a legal secretary for local attorney CB Wilson.

Former Lowell Director Art Hoag and his family lived in the cabin for several months in 1955. Hoag had moved to Flagstaff as the first director of the United States Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station. The Hoags lived in this house while their new home in the Bow and Arrow subdivision was being finished.

Kent Ford and his family moved in next. Ford worked with Vera Rubin in developing the Carnegie Image Tube spectrograph with the 24-inch Morgan Reflector (then housed in the Chalet). They later used the spectrograph on Lowell’s Perkins Telescope and the 2.1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak to discover dark matter.

In 1958, Robert Burnham came to Lowell to work on the Proper Motion Survey and later moved into the house. He lived there until the program ended in 1980.

After Burnham left, Tobias Kreidl lived there from 1980-1986. Brian Skiff moved in in 1989 and was the last person to live in the residence. He moved out in 2014.

It was common to see a variety of wildlife grazing, playing, and resting near the cottage, including deer, birds, and squirrels.

Lucky supervises the demolition

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