No decision on Yerkes yet

Despite months of contemplation, the University of Chicago hasn't sold the historic observatory.
By | Published: April 27, 2006 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Yerkes Observatory
Yerkes Observatory, part of the Astronomy Department of the University of Chicago, was dedicated to the science of astronomy and astrophysics October 21, 1897.
Yerkes Observatory
April 27, 2006
In 2004, the University of Chicago announced Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, was for sale. Although the university believed a buyer would be selected by early April 2006, no decision on the landmark has been made.

“To be honest, this has turned out to be a more complicated transaction than we had expected,” Hank Webber, the University of Chicago’s vice president of community and government affairs, told Astronomy. “We want a win-win-win solution … to preserve Yerkes, generate revenue for the university, and add value for the surrounding area.”

The university now hopes to make a decision within the next couple of months.

Two groups, Aurora University and Mirbeau Companies, have submitted proposals for the observatory and 77-acre property.

Aurora University’s plan would preserve the observatory, utilize the facilities as a science center, create a nature center, expand its nearby campus onto the grounds, and develop 11 lots into single-family housing. Proceeds from lot sales in excess of the tendered offer would help establish a Yerkes endowment. Aurora also would develop partnerships at Yerkes with Chicago’s Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum and other universities in Illinois and Wisconsin.

Mirbeau’s concept includes building an inn and spa retreat, a residential area with no more than 100 houses, and a performing arts venue. Up to three-quarters of the property would remain woodlands or undeveloped landscape. While both proposals’ feasibility would require rezoning by the Village of Williams Bay, the Mirbeau plan appears to be a tougher sell to the board.

The Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SEWRPC) raised a concern that proposed developments could threaten the region’s water quality. In an unofficial statement, SEWRPC declared it would not approve sewage extension to new developments. The University of Chicago is reviewing this issue and has stated it will not be party to any plan that would lessen water quality in the region.

The University of Chicago has had discussions with one or both groups concerning amendments to the proposals, but Webber did not comment further. He stated the university, regardless of who purchases the property, is interested in strengthening Yerkes as a resource.

Dedicated in 1897, Yerkes Observatory was a center of astronomical research in the United States. It still houses the world’s largest refracting telescope. Heavyweights of astronomy, including Edwin Hubble, Albert Einstein, and Carl Sagan, have roamed the observatory’s halls.