Modern astrophysics was born at the University of Chicago’s outpost in Williams Bay, home of the world’s largest refracting telescope. Such famed astronomers as Edwin Hubble and Carl Sagan studied there.
But science never stands still, and newer facilities and technologies have rocketed past the 121-year-old observatory. The university closed Yerkes to the public on Oct. 1, although limited research continues.
Now the fate of the wooded 77-acre site along Geneva Lake is in question.
Bruised by community rejection of a 2006 condo-and-hotel plan, the university is working with the Yerkes Future Foundation, a group of local residents seeking to preserve the building and picturesque grounds. If the university donates the observatory, foundation chair Dianna Colman says, her organization must raise $20 million for an endowment to help pay for $400,000 in annual maintenance.
Since this is Geneva Lake, not Wisconsin Dells, Yerkes won’t become AstroLand theme park. Colman envisions the site hosting education, research, conferences and maybe formal events such as weddings. Meanwhile, former Yerkes education director Kate Meredith has founded a separate organization to continue the observatory’s science education outreach programs off-site. She’s halfway to her $100,000 fundraising goal and hopes those programs eventually return to Yerkes.
After its stellar past, Colman and Meredith say, Yerkes still could have a sparkling future inspiring tomorrow’s star scientists.