As the University of Chicago proceeds with talks concerning the future of Yerkes Observatory, one point that has arisen is the potential interest among descendants of Charles T. Yerkes, the philanthropist whose gift first established the observatory in the 1890s. In recent months the University has met and spoken with descendants of Charles T. Yerkes and provided them with the original gift document [available here – see text version here], which involves only the main observatory building and refracting telescope. Out of respect for the descendants’ wishes, the University agreed not to disclose their names and connection at the time.
Following the observatory’s closure to the public on Oct. 1, the University has continued certain astronomical activities at the observatory, including the use of telescopes and curation of the observatory’s large collection of glass photographic plates. Apart from the main observatory building and the refracting telescope itself, the land and other structures of the Yerkes campus are the property of the University by virtue of other gifts or direct investments of University resources, and are not subject to the terms of the gift from Charles T. Yerkes. The University continues to evaluate and pursue options for the long-term operation of the Yerkes campus.
As part of this effort, the University will continue ongoing talks about the observatory’s future with interested parties, including representatives of Charles T. Yerkes’ descendants, the Village of Williams Bay, and the Yerkes Future Foundation, a non-profit organization located in Williams Bay. As we have indicated in public forums, the University understands that comprehensive plans for Yerkes may require approval by the Village of Williams Bay’s Board of Trustees. Throughout this process the University has sought to balance a number of priorities, including the need for a sustainable operational model, the community’s interest in continued public programming, and sustainable financial terms. We will continue to work with interested parties to facilitate the attainment of these goals.
The Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis. is now closed to the public. All tours and public events at the observatory have ceased. Some of the educational programs previously offered at the observatory have moved to UChicago's campus in Chicago and a new local organization, Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM, has plans to operate some programs at a new location in Williams Bay, not affiliated with UChicago. The University will continue to occasionally operate the telescopes at Yerkes to ensure the Observatory can continue to be used for research and education, and the large collection of glass photographic plates will continue to be available to researchers by appointment via the department Astronomy and Astrophysics.
Plan for closing Yerkes Observatory to public nears completion, as UChicago continues to seek new long-term steward
The University of Chicago is in the final steps of a plan to close Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis. to the public as of Oct. 1, 2018.
Preparations for the transition have been underway since the announcement in March that the University was searching for a new long-term steward for the observatory. Since then, the University has issued a call for proposals for the future of Yerkes, and engaged in talks over the summer with parties interested in the property.
Talks are continuing with the Yerkes Future Foundation, a non-profit organization located in Williams Bay. The University will share any plan for the future of the observatory with the Village of Williams Bay’s Board of Trustees.
“We remain hopeful that a new long-term steward can continue to support the observatory and its legacy, in keeping with the community’s high regard for that history and the potential for education,” said Derek Douglas, Vice President for Civic Engagement and External Affairs at UChicago.
The search for a new owner has been informed by discussions with many stakeholders, including a public meeting about the future of the property held on May 18, 2018. Speakers at that meeting expressed support for the observatory’s educational programs, along with concerns about the potential for high-density residential development on the site. In line with community priorities, the University is not considering any high-density development. Low-density residential use is being explored as part of a long-term plan for some of the land.
Some of the educational programs previously offered at the observatory will move to UChicago’s campus in Chicago, and the University understands that a new local organization has plans to operate some programs at a new location in Williams Bay, not affiliated with UChicago.
The University will continue to operate the telescopes at Yerkes after the closure to ensure the Observatory can continue to be used for astronomical research and investigation, and the large collection of glass photographic plates will continue to be available to researchers by appointment.
Educational Outreach Programs
Educational outreach programs previously offered through the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory will move from the observatory after September 30, 2018 to a new location in Williams Bay, WI. After that time, they will be operated by Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM, Inc. and will no longer be supported by the University of Chicago. Inquiries concerning these programs should be directed to GLAS Education (email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: https://www.glaseducation.org).
UChicago holds public meeting on future of Yerkes Observatory property
Representatives from the University of Chicago listened to a wide range of input from community members in a public meeting about the future of the Yerkes Observatory property in Williams Bay, Wis., on May 18.
The meeting followed the University’s announcement in March that it will wind down its activities at Yerkes and formally cease on-site operations by Oct. 1, 2018. In late April the University posted a call or Expressions of Interest from those wishing to articulate a vision for the observatory’s future, including potential owners.
More than 300 people came to the public meeting in Williams Bay, with questions and comments from about 30 individuals and 42 written comment cards. The UChicago representatives were Derek Douglas, Vice President for Civic Engagement and External Affairs, and Edward W. Kolb, Dean of the Division of Physical Sciences. Douglas said the views expressed at the meeting will be an important consideration as the University continues to evaluates proposals.
“We are grateful to the people of Williams Bay for welcoming us to their community for this meeting,” Douglas said. “The people who attended made important points for us to consider, and the tone of the discussion was extremely respectful and constructive. We recognize that Yerkes means a great deal for many people, and this meeting reflected that.”
Douglas said there were a number of themes in the comments, including concern over who might purchase the property, the observatory’s valued role in education programs, and questions about how the University will evaluate proposals.
“We heard loud and clear that people do not want the University to approach this as an ordinary real estate transaction, and we agree,” Douglas said. He said the University is looking for proposals that balance a number of priorities, including the need for a sustainable operational model, the interest in continued public programming, and suitable financial terms.
The University’s call for Expressions of Interest requests that interested parties submit proposals before June 15. Proposals will be confidential at this stage, and the University will continue to share more information with the Village and others as the process unfolds, in coordination with parties who submit proposals.
University of Chicago Seeks Expressions of Interest in Yerkes Observatory
Yerkes Proposal Process - PDF
Public meeting on May 18, 2018
As part of the process to engage the community about the future of the Yerkes property, the University of Chicago will hold a public meeting at Williams Bay High School on Friday, May 18, 2018. The meeting will take place from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Williams Bay High School is located at 500 W. Geneva St., Williams Bay, Wis.
UChicago representatives speak at village meeting in Williams Bay, Wis.
At a public meeting held by the Village of Williams Bay, representatives from the University of Chicago took questions from the Village Board of Directors and heard comments from the public about the Yerkes property.
On March 7, 2018, the University of Chicago announced that it will end its activities at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., by Oct. 1, 2018. We will post updates to this site as they become available.
Frequently Asked Questions
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UChicago activities at Yerkes Observatory to end in 2018