What’s That Building? The Yerkes Observatory

The Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. The University of Chicago is set to close the 121-year-old facility on Oct. 1. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)
The Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. The University of Chicago is set to close the 121-year-old facility on Oct. 1. WBEZ / Jason Marck
The Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. The University of Chicago is set to close the 121-year-old facility on Oct. 1. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)
The Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. The University of Chicago is set to close the 121-year-old facility on Oct. 1. WBEZ / Jason Marck

What’s That Building? The Yerkes Observatory

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The University of Chicago is set to close its outdated astronomical observatory, which over the past 121 years has seen pioneering science, big personalities, and Chicago-style bravado.

The Yerkes Observatory sits on 77 acres of land on the northwest edge of Geneva Lake in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. Although it’s 98 miles from the university, it’s long been considered a northern extension of the campus.

So how did U of C’s observatory end up in Wisconsin?

Charles Yerkes, who agreed to pay for the largest telescope in the world, required it be built within 100 miles of Chicago. Astronomers determined the observatory couldn’t be built in the city because soot from factories would cloud the sky, or along Lake Michigan because humidity would interfere with the lenses. Not only did Geneva Lake offer clear skies, but it could be reached in one day’s train ride.

The three-story, 57,000-square-foot structure opened in 1897. It still has telescopes with parts U of C astronomer George Ellery Hale got in 1892 after the University of Southern California canceled plans for its observatory.

To design a space to house the huge telescopes, the university tapped Henry Ives Cobb, who had designed other buildings for U of C and Lake Forest College. Cobb also designed the Chicago Varnish Company Building (now Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse) and the Newberry Library.

One of the telescopes at Yerkes Observatory has a 40-inch refracting lens, the largest in the world. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

The Yerkes Observatory makes Cobb’s other buildings feel like modest bungalows. It has three domes — including one of the world’s largest for an observatory — atop an ornate facade with rows of arches and columns. The facade also includes carvings of stars, human faces, and mythical creatures. Above the main door, a team of horses pulls a chariot carrying the Greek and Roman sun god Apollo.

The outside of the Yerkes Observatory features columns and ornate carvings. (Jason Marck/WBEZ)

“It was supposed to be a cathedral of science,” said Doyal “Al” Harper, a university astronomy professor. “In Hale’s mind, this combination of the awe-inspiring instrument itself and the building it was [housed in] would inspire higher ideas.”

By the 1980s, the observatory was obsolete. The observatory’s 40-inch refracting telescope was still the largest in the world, but most astronomers were now using reflecting telescopes and computers.

The university will close the observatory on Oct. 1, with or without a buyer or plan for the future. A report suggests the university turn the observatory over to a nonprofit that could run educational programs or to Aurora University, which has a campus next door. Aurora University isn’t interested, according to media reports.

The work done at Yerkes includes Nobel Prize-winning research

Yerkes was the base of U of C’s astronomy department, where two of America’s best-known 20th-century astronomers studied: Edwin Hubble and Carl Sagan.

Other astrophysics work done at Yerkes includes Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar’s Nobel Prize-winning research that led to the understanding of how massive stars die; Gerard Kuiper’s discovery of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of Mars and on moons of Uranus and Neptune; and Frank Schlesinger’s method to measure stellar distances.

Dr. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, an India-born professor of theoretical astrophysics at University of Chicago's Yerkes observatory, holds a lantern slide which he uses to explain a new theory of improved weather forecasting through a better understanding of movements in the Earth's atmosphere and the gases within the sun and other stars. (AP Photo/Ernest K. Bennett)

The observatory’s namesake was a man of Chicago-style politics

Yerkes spent three years in a Philadelphia prison for a financial scheme involving that city’s municipal bonds before he moved to Chicago, where he opened a stock and grain brokerage and reportedly bribed public officials in an attempt to monopolize the city’s street railways.

In 1890, Yerkes funded construction of an “electric fountain” in Lincoln Park. The fountain had a 120-foot basin that featured a combined light and water show. One reporter compared Yerkes to Caesar, who created “public spectacles of such magnificence that he became at once the people’s idol.”

In 1892, U of C President William Rainey Harper and Hale convinced Yerkes to donate $300,000 — the equivalent of about $8 million today — to build an observatory for the university. The ornate building would be another showpiece that Yerkes could flaunt.

In 1898, Yerkes moved on to New York City, and later London, where he helped develop the London Underground. After leaving Chicago, his personal life was filled with scandal.

Despite Yerkes controversial life, his name lives on far past the observatory. There’s also a crater on the moon named after him. One astronomer noted that it’s interesting, given all the drama in Yerkes’ personal and professional life, that the Yerkes Crater is in the Sea of Crises.

Dennis Rodkin is a real estate reporter for Crain’s Chicago Business and Morning Shift’s “What’s That Building?” contributor.