The University of Chicago is ending its support for Yerkes Observatory, a historic, castle-like building built to house a gigantic telescope, on October 1st. Its future remains unclear.
The Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, will significantly scale back its astronomical programming this summer and cease operations on October 1, 2018. But Yerkes is not closing, mind you, just reorganizing.
To people in the astronomy and education communities, Yerkes Observatory has an almost mythical quality. Built in the 1890s, it is world-famous for housing the largest refracting telescope in the world, a 40-inch diameter, 60-foot long metal behemoth that weighs over six tons.
This monster of a telescope has a most appropriate home: it stands caged under a gray dome at the apex of a fancifully adorned brick and concrete castle at the edge of a crystal lake. It is a place that anyone who loves astronomy and history will, at one point in their lives, make a pilgrimage to see.
The University of Chicago’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics has served a dual role in the operation of the Yerkes Observatory, where it conducts astronomical research while fostering education outreach to the community. However, critics said the equipment is too old and the weather too poor for research, while the location is so removed from population centers that it cannot draw large numbers of visitors.
When would the University of Chicago tire of holding on to this relic that lies nearly 100 miles and another state away?
My Visit to Yerkes
In the summer of 2005, I made my own pilgrimage to Yerkes to behold the massive refractor and browse the ornate details of the structure itself. Dr. Kyle Cudworth, then-director of Yerkes, was the perfect tour guide.
Cudworth shared the history of how a slick, fast-talking astronomer, George Ellery Hale, convinced Charles Yerkes, a Chicago businessman saddled with a bad reputation, to finance both the telescope and the observatory to the tune of about $300,000. (That's in 1890s currency; it would be roughly equivalent to $8 million today.)
Cudworth also highlighted the intricate and unique carvings found in every nook and cranny of the exterior. Heck, it even had gargoyles hanging over the eaves!
Then I entered the holiest of sites: the dome of the 40-inch refractor. As I gazed skyward, mouth open, I stood in awe of this work of engineering. Although not classically attractive, the telescope is industrial, functional, and downright steampunk.
“How do you look through the telescope?” I asked. “It’s still 15 feet above me!”
“Hold on to something,” Dr. Cudworth warned curtly.
With the push of a button, a great motor raised the entire circular floor to the level of the eyepiece. No climbing rickety ladders for these astronomers – they bring the floor to the telescope.
I left Yerkes thinking, “Everyone needs to see this place!”
If Only Everyone Could Visit
The announcement to scale back operations at Yerkes is not a death sentence for the beloved institution. The doors will not be barred on October 1st, and the wrecking balls will not start tearing down the gargoyles just yet. The University of Chicago genuinely wants to find a solution for Yerkes — to discover a way to make the facility thrive as a museum, an education center, or a tourist attraction. They want to find or create a motivated non-profit to convert Yerkes from a 20th-century research facility into a viable, vibrant historic landmark. There are several models in the United States for how this can be accomplished — including my own Cincinnati Observatory.
But now the clock is ticking. What will happen to the lakeside castle-observatory? Don’t delay. Visit today.