What’s Next for the Shuttered Yerkes Observatory?

Southeastern Wisconsin’s venerable observatory has gone dark.

The universe just caught up with Yerkes Observatory

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.

Then what?

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.

“Final Frontier” appears in the December 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop or find the December issue on newsstands, starting Dec. 3.

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Larry Sandler has been writing about Milwaukee-area news for more than 30 years. He covered City Hall and transportation for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, after reporting on county government, business and education for the former Milwaukee Sentinel. At the Journal Sentinel, he won a Milwaukee Press Club award for his investigation of airline security. He's been freelancing since late 2012, with a focus on local government, politics and transportation. His contributions to Milwaukee Magazine have included in-depth articles about our lively local politics, prized cultural assets and evolving transportation options. Larry grew up in Chicago and now lives in Glendale.