Joe Petrocelli, left, who donated his contracting company's services to make repairs to the Young Observatory, with officials at a ribbon-cutting April 27. Photo: Alek Lewis

The historic observatory at Riverhead High School has received some TLC and is now back up and running, town and school district officials announced today.

The telescope and observatory, which has been out of commission for the last few years due to a problem with its observation hatch, was built in 1935 by John Elliot Young and his father Orville, owners of a Riverhead machine shop off Roanoke Avenue, according to historical records maintained by the school district. 

The objective lens for the telescope was purchased by Henry G. Fitz of Southold, the son of the first commercial telescope maker in the United States, according to the historical record. It isn’t clear whether the lens was built by Fitz or his famous father, who died in 1863.

Photo: Alek Lewis

Young, who attended Riverhead public schools, donated the telescope in 1980 to the school district. The observatory was moved from Young’s property to the high school to hold the telescope for use by students, and dedicated to Young, in 1981.

George Bartunek, a former Riverhead teacher who taught when the observatory was donated, got choked up as he held up a picture of Young and spoke about him and the history of the observatory’s reconstruction.

“I’m trying to imagine Mr. Young here today. And you know something, he would look the same,” Bartunek said. “He’d have his engineer’s hat on, he’d have his work clothes on, and he’d be chewing on a toothpick. That’s exactly the way he would be here today. And he’s the guy that you really owe a lot to for this thing here. He was really quite an amazing guy,” Bartunek said.

Former Riverhead science teacher George Bartunek speaks at the ribbon-cutting to celebrate the Young Observatory’s reopening April 27. Photo: Alek Lewis

Riverhead science teacher Lance Mion, who teaches the high school’s astronomy course, said the telescope will be a valuable asset for students.

“In astronomy we teach them about the celestial sphere, which is basically what this is, and how to find objects in the night sky using declination ascension. And the equatorial mount is that good for that,” he said.

An equatorial mount allows a telescope to follow an astronomical object while it moves through the night sky, according to Sky at Night Magazine.

“It takes something you learn from paper and you give them the experience of looking at it in real life,” Mion said. “So I think that’s a big deal for the kids.”

Photo: Alek Lewis

The school will be planning events so the public can use the observatory, as it was used in previous years, Mion said. 

“This has been such a sentimental and really momentous occasion for us as a school district and to Riverhead as a community,” Jeannine Campbell, the district’s STEM director said. “Having all of these people here today has made this what it is. Thank you to everybody who contributed to this. It really is an amazing thing for us.”

The Riverhead Town Board authorized the expenditure of $3,320 to repair the observatory for the school district in October. The board hired J. Petrocelli Contracting Inc. to make the repair, which included taking apart and reassembling joints and gears to free the observation hatch. Officials announced the company was donating its services. 

“This is something that is related to Earth and science. And it’s good to see that the students will be able to take a little field trip just a couple of hundred feet and go see the stars in the galaxy,” Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: