FROM OUR COLD DEAD FINGERS…
Yerkes barricades itself in for the long siege. What is it that the University of Chicago is trying to prove with the Yerkes Observatory? They shut the thing down and boarded up the building. They blockaded the entrance. They ran all over hell and gone to “enlist the support of the communities around Geneva Lake” in order to come up with an equitable solution. An equitable solution to what? Execution? They don’t want to sell the old building or they would have it up for sale. They are open to the sale of the surrounding property, but not the old observatory building itself. They will not allow any other college to take that observatory building over, either. So, what are they up to? They are going to wait.
Since nobody around the lake or anywhere else came up with a solution to the problem, because there is no solution to the problem, they are going to wait until time goes by. And then they are going to tear that giant stone monument down. That’s the opinion of several very well experienced commercial realtors who live in Lake Geneva, but practice in downtown Chicago. The impediment right now is called the Williams Bay Board. Those people are intractable when it comes to the destruction of the greatest icon Geneva Lake has ever had or is ever likely to have.
Mr. Yerkes built the observatory on Williams Bay land because that’s where he wanted it to be. He was in love with the lake and the Bay area and people. And why should he not have been? The University of Chicago inherited the property and the institution oversaw some of its greatest successes, but that was back in a time when the university was run by visionaries who thought not only about the heavens above but about the heavens below that might be vastly enriched by discovering more about those heavens above.
The Geneva Shore Report has been very harsh with respect to what has happened at the Yerkes and there have been some powerful reasons for that coverage and the negative tenor of it. The abandonment of Yerkes is an important example of the abandonment of America’s investment in science as the foremost tool for the nation’s, and mankind’s, advancement. A belief or a series of them, grounded on other beliefs or mythology can lead cultures to ruin, and this has been the case throughout mankind’s history. Science is the methodology of discovery, invention and then proof after proof that those discoveries and inventions work and are real. Science allows mankind to build from the knowledge tested, learned and then passed on to future generations.
Williams Bay is a small ‘throwaway place’, beautifully located next to a small throw away lake, located near the southern border of the 20th largest U.S. State (by GDP). Nationally, the importance of the town, the lake, and the observatory is tiny compared to almost anything else going on in much larger and more economically active places, but it is significant in that it has a now forgotten and neglected observatory where so much discovery and science took place before it was closed soon to be forgotten.
Hollywood film origins don’t go back to Hollywood. They go back to Lake Geneva, but that too has been forgotten. What is it about this small plot of land located in a place almost nobody knows about? This land is populated by some very special, bright, caring and wildly inventive human beings. Some of the richest people in the country own and maintain residences around Geneva Lake, and not just because of the beautiful lake. There are many more beautiful lakes on the surface of the earth. Those powerful people come for the same reason so many regular humans come to Geneva Lake to visit and then never leave, or must return to, or must pine away and miss because they are not here. Those people come for the special people who populate Southern Wisconsin. The Yerkes is important because it is emblematic of those rare and wonderful people. Those people around Geneva Lake are not going to give up the Yerkes. That huge building and what it has meant will only be pried loose from their cold dead fingers.