Yerkes Observatory, a historic, castle-like building built to house a gigantic telescope, may soon reopen if all goes according to plan.

Yerkes Observatory
Yerkes Observatory
S&T Archive

What do you do with a 19th-century observatory?  In April 2018 the University of Chicago, owners of the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, announced that they had no practical use for such an observatory. Unless a buyer came forward, they would close the observatory. No buyer came forward, so they shut the doors to the public on October 1, 2018.

Astronomers, historians, and telescope enthusiasts around the world feared the worst: that Yerkes would never open again. Now there is new hope that the Yerkes may soon reopen under new management and with a new mission for the 21st century.

A New Hope

The Yerkes Observatory, dedicated in 1897, is home to the largest refracting telescope in the world, along with several other working telescopes. The building and grounds are designed with such magical detail that the setting looks like something out of a fairy tale.

Yerkes is strongly tied to the quaint community in which it resides. Bill Duncan, Williams Bay Village President, described Yerkes as, “the iconic image for the village.” When the University of Chicago announced the closure of the Observatory, he said, “village residents took it very badly.” Duncan explained that the residents have embraced the observatory over the years. “The Observatory brought in so many astronomers that enriched the community, and their presence encouraged volunteerism among the residents toward space science and education.”

Yerkes refractor
The 40-inch diameter, 60-foot long refractor telescope at Yerkes Observatory.
S&T Archive

Located near the shores of Lake Geneva, the Yerkes site is considered prime real estate. In the past several developers have proposed plans to build hotels or resorts on the property, as well as re-purpose the surrounding green spaces. “The community vigorously opposed this development,” Duncan said, “and through fits and starts, the same hard work has gone into a breakthrough with the University of Chicago.”

On November 5, 2019, a hint at this breakthrough came via a press release, which stated, “The University of Chicago and the Yerkes Future Foundation (YFF) are pleased to announce an agreement in principle for transfer of ownership of Yerkes Observatory and related property located in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, to the Yerkes Future Foundation. Over the next several months, both organizations will be working closely on all aspects of the proposed transfer. Additional information will be made available as appropriate.”

The Yerkes Future Foundation

The mission of the Yerkes Future Foundation (YFF) is to preserve and protect the Yerkes Observatory and enhance and expand the experience visitors have on the site. For Dianna Colman, chairman of the Yerkes Future Foundation, the observatory has long been part of her life as a Williams Bay resident. “I’ve been there for weddings and other special events,” Colman said, “and every time I walk in there, I feel smarter.”  Now she wants to return Yerkes to the magical place she remembers.

Over the past year, Colman along with other members of the YFF consulted with experts in the field of informal science education to develop a sustaining model for the future of Yerkes. Specifically Colman pointed to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, whose staff has mentored the group, as the standard for success.

“Our first step is to get inside and make sure it is safe and the equipment is usable,” Colman said. “But I want to get it open to the public and reestablish the tours again.”  Colman also expressed the desire to continue using the telescopes for research and to add more modern equipment that might appeal to the modern astronomer.

Not Open Yet

Gargoyle at Yerkes Observatory
One of the gargoyles hanging out at Yerkes.
Craig Niemi (Cincinnati Observatory Director)

Despite the positive steps indicated in this announcement, it is still an “agreement in principle.”  Many more details are still to be worked out, including determining what role, if any, the University of Chicago will play. When will Yerkes reopen, and what exactly will it look like, are questions still to be answered.

What do you do with a 19th century observatory in the 21st century?  Bill Duncan certainly hopes that soon the Observatory will be reopened and used once again. “I am very pleased for the village by this positive step toward not only preserving the Yerkes Observatory but bringing it back to its former glory.”

For Colman, she wants the Observatory to be a regional tourist attraction. “If all it is is a dusty, stodgy place, that’s not for us.”  She wants visitors to the state to say, “We’re in Wisconsin. We need to see the Yerkes Observatory.”

Comments


Image of Bob-Patrick

Bob-Patrick

November 14, 2019 at 12:16 pm

Dean, thanks for your article on the re-opening of the Yerkes Observatory. In the meantime, I continue to praise you and the staff of the Cincinnati Observatory for a wonderful historic location.

Bob

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OwlEye

November 14, 2019 at 1:36 pm

My heart sank when I read on these pages a while back of the closing of Yerkes. It reminded me of the trips I made with my wife to this American astronomical institution many years ago, and how incredible it was to walk into that gigantic dome, and feel the splendid weight of that crowning achievement of Alvin Clark and Sons looming above us!

I recall how that experience reminded me of the first time I ever had such a feeling, when I stepped into the larger observatory (housing a 12-inch Clark refractor) of Leslie C. Peltier in late August of 1971. gazing in awe up at this beautiful, long white refractor pointed skyward above me, and the wonderful views it gave of Vega, the first-quarter moon, and the Ring Nebula.

After Leslie's passing in May of 1980, I tried to convince the people of Delphos, Ohio, to acquire and maintain this amazing observatory as a memorial to Leslie and an observatory for the public, but to no avail. All that remains today is a graffiti-covered pier enshrouded by tall bushes.

As hope remains for Yerkes, let's get busy.

DO NOT LET THIS HAPPEN !!

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Bob-Patrick

November 14, 2019 at 11:28 pm

OwlEye, thank you for your efforts to save the observatory of Leslie C. Peltier (August 1971). Like you and many other amateur astronomers, I am sorry about the fate of Leslie's observatory. Despite the turn of events for Leslie's observatory, I think a photo posted somewhere in Delphos or on the pages of Sky & Telescope would serve much good to his followers. Maybe, this has already happened. If not, maybe the new owner of S&T will consider doing such in the near future.

Bob

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OwlEye

November 15, 2019 at 12:16 pm

Bob,

Thank you for your kind words. I did my best for Leslie, I just wish I had known more back then.

THANK YOU Dean, for this word of hope about Yerkes. What else do you think it will take?

Regards,
Doug Z

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Doug Will

November 15, 2019 at 5:25 pm

During the summer of ~1970 I taught a summer science class for high school students in the Hyde Park area of Chicago. One evening we drove up to Yerkes and spent about 4 hours (after formal observations were done for the night) using the 40" Clark refractor, often slewing by hand, viewing the most magnificent views of a dozen well known objects. Hopefully several of those students still love astronomy!

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Eric Rachut

November 18, 2019 at 12:22 am

The 30" Brashear refractor at Allegheny Observatory, refigured by Jean Texereau, and the Clark 26" refractor at the US Naval Observatory (Washington, D.C.), have been in active use in recent years, the 30" for astrometry and t he 26" for double star measures - a vital aspect of astronomy. Dr George van Biesbroeck made use of the Yerkes refractor for many years for these measures and a resumption would please his shade! The scopes there can be dedicated to public education, supernovae patrols, exoplanet searches - amateurs lately are active in these fields. The site is close to University of Wisconsin in Madison and grad students could use them.....

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Patrick A. Baron

February 26, 2020 at 9:57 pm

If anyone cares or not.

I’ve been going to Yerkes for 50 years.
I‘ve viewed Haley’s comet from that magnificent scope.
I was married there on a beautiful August day to a beautiful lady.
My wife and I and a judge named Yerkes. With just the staff as witnesses.
As young people we picnicked on the lawn and did water color paintings of the various palatial scenes of architecture and fauna.
We have a tree there in our honor.
I am grateful for the experiences shared at such a spectacular array of science and natural beauty. It was a large part of my life.
I have a spectroscope designed by a man who worked there in the early 1900’s. Robert Wallace.
He referred to himself as:
“A lemon in a garden of love”

I’d donate his spectroscope if you find a way to keep Yerkes Observatory alive.

Patrick Baron

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