The Cohen House Sundial

One of my favorite things happened today. Someone couldn’t find something and asked me if I could figure out what became of it. I love, love, love this because it lets me go out and act like I’m starring in a cop show.

What I was tracking down was a missing piece of the sundial outside Cohen House. It seems that we’ve sent it off for restoration in Switzerland, from whence it came in 1965. There’s a very thick file on this sundial in the Woodson–here’s the letter from Mr. Cohen to President Pitzer explaining what he had in mind:

And here’s a picture of the dial at about the time it first arrived on campus. (I’m pretty sure the ceremony was held for Mr. Cohen’s 80th birthday.) It’s really quite a nice instrument and a great deal of care was taken to make it function properly. This photo actually solves a separate mystery. I always sort of wondered in the back of my mind why they would have installed it in such a shady spot. Of course, it wasn’t so shady fifty years ago.

I like this view. There’s no Sewall Hall yet.

What had gone missing was the tip and the tail of the arrow–all the was left was the shaft, which obviously increases the cost of the renovation. I expected to write a post tonight asking if anyone knew where these pieces were. But as I looked through the files, I realized that Mr. Cohen, in his usual fussy way, had insisted that two of these arrows be made. Further, he didn’t like the round piece in the middle of the arrow–the disk of the “hole in the disk” that he mentions at the end of his letter to Pitzer–and had them replaced with two plaques showing the Cohen House seal.

So what happened to the second arrow? This was almost too easy. I’ve been in the bowels of Cohen House enough times to know that there was a reasonable possibility that it was in there somewhere so I just went over to check. I was guessing it was up in the attic apartment. I was wrong, though. It was in the basement, behind the place where the good china is stashed.

Anita, who knew just where to look, and Ann, who knew exactly who to ask.

So I took it over to Hannes inF&E. I guess it will be sent to Switzerland.

Bonus: Here’s the empty stand.

And I haven’t forgot that the original tip and tail are still missing. If you know where they are, let me know. No questions asked!


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7 Responses to The Cohen House Sundial

  1. James Medford says:

    There’s an attic apartment in Cohen House? That’s the first I’ve heard of it. Any idea what its purpose was/is?

  2. Melissa Kean says:

    Oh, yes indeed. It was meant to house visitors and the occasional bachelor faculty member. I believe that long-time engineering professor Carl Wischmeyer lived up there for a while. It’s full of junk now.

  3. Mike Loeb says:

    I understand why you love your job. You’re Monk, Columbo and all the other sleuths. Rooting around in attics and basements – what could be more fun. And I assume you get paid for it, too!

  4. Hannes Hofer says:


    Thanks for helping us shedding light on topics such as this. I have sent a link to your blog to my contact at Gubelin in Switzerland. I am sure they will appreciate reading the story as well.


  5. Melissa,
    Nice article and sleuthing. I’m the webmaster for the North American Sundial Society website at and we run sundial news articles on our front page. We’re a non-profit that has intense interest in sundials. We’ve been around since 1995, and you can download a copy of our journal, The Compendium, from the site.

    May we use the early photo of the sundial to accompany our paragraph summary of your blog with links your page? It would be great to feature the history of the Cohen House sundial. You can see a recent set of photos of the dial by using or Registry of Sundials in North America on the left column of our site, selecting Texas and on the new page, surf down to Houston … double click on the photo and you’ll get a complete description of the Cohen Dial and a set of photos.


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