After being closed for more than a year, the Univer-sity of Chicago and the Yerkes Future Foundation announced an agreement in principle for transfer of ownership of Yerkes Observatory and related proper-ty. Among the Foundation’s goals are restoration and refurbishing the telescopes and building and reopen-ing the facility. (Kyle Cudworth/U-Chicago photo)

Yerkes ownership to transfer to foundation that plans to reopen facility

By Heather Ruenz

Staff Writer

Yerkes Future Foundation made an announcement earlier this week that supporters of Yerkes Observatory have been waiting a long time to hear.

“The University of Chicago and the Yerkes Future Foundation are pleased to announce an agreement in principle for transfer of ownership of Yerkes Observatory and related property located in Williams Bay,” Dianna Colman, president of the Foundation, announced Tuesday.

Over the next several months, both organizations will be working closely on all aspects of the proposed transfer, according to the announcement with additional information being made available as appropriate.

The Foundation’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 in 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 announcement states.

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 (Foundation) 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 states.

Dan Koehler, who was the director of tours and special programs at Yerkes, thanked those involved for their efforts in a post on Facebook.

“Here it is – the announcement we’ve been praying for since March 2018. Thank you to the members of the Yerkes Future Foundation for their extraordinary efforts to save Yerkes for future generations,” Koehler said.

According to a post on the Save Yerkes Facebook page, Tuesday’s announcement brought the news many had been waiting for.

“We’re very excited to share that, after a more than year-long wait, the University of Chicago has finally pushed through an agreement with the Yerkes Future Foundation about the observatory,” it said.


Why it closed

The University announced early last year that Yerkes would “formally cease on-site operations” by Oct. 1, 2018.

Despite its important history, the Yerkes facility and its instrumentation no longer contribute directly to the research mission of the college, which has made major investments in the Magellan and Giant Magellan telescopes in Chile, according to an announcement in March 2018.

Yerkes has continued to make important contributions through its education and outreach programs, and that work, which remains important to the University, was to be relocated to the Hyde Park campus.

“Science at Yerkes in the 20th century led to key discoveries and advances in the field of astronomy, when the observatory helped build the foundation for modern astrophysics,” said Edward (Rocky) Kolb, dean of the Division of the Physical Sciences and a professor in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics.

“It is an important part of the history of the University, and we hope it will become, in some form, a valuable resource to the surrounding community and visitors to the Lake Geneva area,” Kolb added.

The observatory was established by the University in 1897 and has been the home of groundbreaking work by scientists such as George Ellery Hale, Edwin Hubble and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.

The facility was the home of the University of Chicago’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics from the time it opened until it began relocating to Hyde Park in the 1960s.

In recent decades, the University’s research in observational astronomy has shifted to using facilities located all over the globe and in space.

The University and staff at Yerkes will honor existing commitments for events at the facility scheduled before Oct. 1, and will accept new bookings on a case-by-case basis.

“Unfortunately, operating Yerkes no longer makes sense for the University from a programmatic or cost standpoint. Drawing to a close our operations there is the first step in a collaborative process to determine the ultimate disposition of the buildings and property,” said David Fithian, executive vice president of the University.

At that time, according to Fithian, there were “no specific plans nor have we approached any potential buyers.”


The work continued

Though there was much negativity surrounding the impending closing of the facility last year, the work currently being done at Yerkes continued to progress and expand offsite through Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.)

“We are the entities who are going to move the education programs forward when the building closes,” GLAS community outreach coordinator Sheila Venteicher said.

GLAS contains four programs: Dark Skies, Innovators Developing Accessible Tools for Astronomy, Girls Who Code and Star Parties.

As separate entities, Yerkes Future Foundation strictly focuses on getting custody of the grounds, while GLAS Education is, “the safety net for the Yerkes education programs,” director of GLAS Kate Meredith explained at the time.

Then – in late August 2018 – staff at Yerkes had not heard from the University of Chicago about potential buyers but the goal, they said, was that the tours and programs continue at the observatory once Yerkes has a new owner.

Though the announcement this week is a long ways off from that type of commitment, it has opened up the possibility that Yerkes will once again offer its one-of-a-kind view of the sky.


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