The Yerkes Observatory and Property

What happened?

Here is the joint statement released on Tuesday of last week:

“The University of Chicago and the Yerkes Future Foundation (YFF) are pleased to announce an agreement in principle for the transfer of ownership of Yerkes Observatory and related property located in Williams Bay, Wisconsin to the Yerkes Future Foundation. Over the next several months, both organizations will be working closely on all aspects of the proposed transfer. Additional information will be made available as appropriate.  YFF’s objectives include restoration and refurbishing of the telescopes and building, reopening the space for visitors and establishing educational, research, seminars and various additional opportunities for students, astronomers, astrophysicists, and others. Students and faculty at the University of Chicago’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics have continued to do educational and research work at Yerkes Observatory in the past year. The transfer to YFF will mark the conclusion of the University’s historic affiliation with Yerkes, allowing the University to make further investments in the future of the field, including projects such as the Giant Magellan Telescope.  

Both the University and YFF would like to express their appreciation for the support shown by the Yerkes family, the Village of Williams Bay and many educators and scientists


It is presumed from interpreting what is not in the body of this release that the family of Yerkes, the observatory’s founder, and financier, has been satisfied, as well as the university itself.  Earlier in the year, the Geneva Shore Report found and revealed the letter that Charles Yerkes left for his children, and in a university file, that read, in part (about the requirement that the university use the observatory for ‘astronomical investigation’:

“…but upon their failure so to do, the property hereby conveyed shall revert to said Charles J. Yerkes or his heirs by law, the same as if this conveyance had never been made.”

Dianna Coleman, noted fundraiser for other non-profit causes, is the head of the Yerkes Future Foundation, and will no doubt assume the reigns of control over the observatory if she has not already.  The most important phrase in the joint press release, as stated in full above, when it comes to the waiting public, might well be: “reopening the space for visitors…

Even over the course of the last few years, the observatory went from being an open building, where education and observation of the stars skies went on every day and night, to becoming a place where only guided tours were allowed, and those on an infrequent paid for and sporadic basis.  Richard Dreiser made that transition almost acceptable, (simply because he was about the best tour guide any observatory could possibly have), but still, would it not be able to a wonderful experience to once again drive to the facility, part in the free parking lot out front, and then wander the cavernous unused but historically important open areas inside and atop the structure?

One wonders what accommodation the university had to make to the family in order to accomplish this rather quiet and seamless passing of the baton of observatory ownership from the university, around the family and then the YFF?  When the observatory abruptly closed, and the Yerkes’ heirs letter was found,  the university was forced to cobble together some legal interpretation of what it means to be legally closed, or not.  The observatory re-opened for a few months in a very minor and crippled way (although not for long, probably while the legalities were being worked out).

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