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