Yerkes On the Block

Yerkes Observatory may soon have a new owner. The University of Chicago has considered selling the observatory's telescopes, buildings, and about 80 acres of lakefront property in southeastern Wisconsin "for decades," says director Kyle M. Cudworth, the only astronomer still working full time at the former research powerhouse. Now a sale seems imminent, and it remains unclear what the future holds for the observatory's century-old refractor (the world's largest), its Romanesque main building, and its two dozen employees.

Cudworth first learned in July that the university had received — and was close to accepting — an unsolicited offer for Yerkes from a developer hoping to build houses on the observatory's landscaped grounds. (Two sources peg the sale price at about $10 million.) Shortly thereafter, rumors of a likely sale prompted area resident Larry Larkin and a handful of neighbors to make a counteroffer. Larkin and his colleagues hope to acquire the property for Aurora University, whose George Williams campus abuts Yerkes on three sides. Both offers remain in effect, and several sources say that the University of Chicago may choose between them by late January.

Yerkes up close
Yerkes Observatory's main building houses the 40-inch refractor (in the 90-foot-diameter dome on the left side of this December 1st photo) and 41-inch and 24-inch 24-inch reflectors (in the central and right-hand domes, respectively). The century-old observatory has had to contend with frequent clouds and a near-sea-level elevation while competing facilities have arisen on mountaintops in California, Arizona, and elsewhere.
Courtesy Heather Cudworth.

If the University of Chicago accepts the overtures being made by Larkin and his fellow would-be buyers, says Cudworth, a consortium of institutions would probably operate the observatory as a center for astronomy education and outreach. Downtown Chicago's Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, a likely participant, wants to expand its highly ranked collection of astronomical artifacts while conducting more research on science and education, says Adler's vice president for research, Lucy Fortson, and "Yerkes fits smack dab in the middle of all that." However, "we have to come up with a business [plan] before we accept any role in operating" the facility, she cautions. "We can't afford to do something that's going to be a resource drain."

A consortium or perhaps a single institution like Adler also could operate Yerkes as a learning center if the unidentified developer acquires the property. But this presumes that the University of Chicago will protect Yerkes Observatory from demolition even if offered a premium to sell the entire property with no strings attached. After all, "to a developer, the best thing would be to tear down the building and the telescopes," says one interested party.

University of Chicago spokesperson Larry Arbeiter concedes that he "can't make ironclad guarantees" that the university will preserve the observatory as a publicly accessible astronomy museum. But, he adds, "we consider it highly desirable that the facility be made use of in a way that preserves its heritage and is accessible to the public . . . and we think it highly unlikely that anyone would offer so large a premium as to divert us from that commitment." Furthermore, says Arbeiter, no offer now on the table calls for the observatory's destruction. "With people like Hubble, Compton, Chandrasekhar, and Sagan . . . in our astronomical heritage," Arbeiter adds, "we appreciate the importance of Yerkes and are serious about preserving it."

Last Thursday, the University of Chicago's vice president for community and government affairs, Henry S. Webber, met with Cudworth, Fortson, Aurora University officials, and one member of Larkin's group. This was the first joint meeting of these constituencies, and it was "fairly formal," says Fortson. "We all have generally the same vision for Yerkes," she adds. "Working out the details, that's the hard part." Cudworth, for his part, is "fairly optimistic" about the future of Yerkes, whose outreach and educational programs for high-school students, science teachers, and the public already are essentially self-sustaining.