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In search of new role for astronomy icon

Impending sale of Yerkes Observatory rattles Wis. towns

The University of Chicago plans to close the Yerkes Observatory on Oct. 1 and is weighing what to do with the property. In 2006, it was almost sold to a resort developer. (Courtney Pedroza/Chicago Tribune )

BY TED GREGORY

CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WILLIAMS BAY, Wis. — Lately, Dianna Colman is recognized and stopped almost everywhere she goes. Her phone buzzes, too, with calls from New York, Texas, Georgia and California, among other places.

But the reason for her celebrity is hardly glamorous. Colman and a few others have taken on the complicated task of trying to save the cherished and renowned Yerkes Observatory — birthplace of modern astronomy, home to a pair of Nobel laureates and now for sale.

“Trust me,” Colman said after walking through the building one recent afternoon, “everybody around here is just saying, ‘Now what? What are they going to do? How are they going to do it? When?’ It’s a little frustrating, but it’s part of the process.”

“They” are the leaders of the University of Chicago, which owns the 121-year-old observatory and an estimated 77 bucolic acres around it in southeast Wisconsin. But for decades, Yerkes has been obsolete as a cutting-edge research center.

In March, U. of C. announced the observatory will close on Oct. 1. For an undetermined period of time, the institution is considering offers for what to do with the property.

The university’s decision to sell ratcheted up anxiety in the five towns surrounding Geneva Lake, a region known as a getaway for Chicago-area residents and sprinkled with extremely affluent families that have vacationed in their opulent homes here for generations.

In Williams Bay, the tiny village where Yerkes is located, the pending sale is making people particularly antsy. A dozen years ago, the university agreed to sell the observatory to a resort developer, but that episode ended with hurt feelings and no deal.

This time, the university and local residents are trying to be more deliberate, respectful and transparent. Yet concerns are emerging about the university’s intentions.

The Yerkes’ grounds, designed by the legendary landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, include open lakefront footage on highly desirable Geneva Lake, and the observatory is so central to the region that its image is on Williams Bay’s village seal.

Distinctive and ornate, the building’s main feature is what’s touted as the world’s largest refractor telescope — with a 40-inch lens, 63-foot tube and total weight of 20 tons.

Carl Sagan and Edwin Hubble studied at Yerkes. Nobel laureates Gerhard Herzberg and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar worked there, and a third Nobel winner, James Cronin, was affiliated with Yerkes. Albert Einstein visited.

And, despite the university’s emphasis on more sophisticated reflecting telescope projects in Chile, Yerkes remains a welcoming educational and community center that offers tours, “star parties,” chances to look through the massive telescope, even astronomy programs for the blind.

Those who know Yerkes well say its wooded, parklike setting has an almost magical capacity to stir passion for astronomy and all sciences.

“We’ve loved it long enough,” Colman said, “that we figure it must belong to us by now.”

‘Enormous pushback,’ but ‘no secret plan’

The Geneva Lake area being what it is, the group Colman leads includes people with influence, education, experience and acumen. A retired McDonald’s executive, a former university executive vice president, a trial attorney, a psychiatrist and Colman, a Harvard MBA who worked in corporate finance, are the core of the Yerkes Future Foundation.

Packed rooms at public hearings underscore locals’ affection for Yerkes and the ambience of Williams Bay, a town of about 2,600 that three decades ago blocked a proposed golf course, townhouse, condo and convention center plan by purchasing the 230-acre site.

Williams Bay converted it to the Kishwauketoe Nature Conservancy.

The village could borrow money to buy the Yerkes property, trustee Jim D’Alessandro said. But “there’s little to zero support for doing that” primarily because maintenance of the property alone could total $400,000 to $800,000 a year, said D’Alessandro, who is also president of the Williams Bay Business Association.

At one of those packed public meetings shortly after U. of C. announced Yerkes’ closing, trustee Marsha Engquist reminded university Executive Vice President David Fithian of a “long, arduous process that hurt painfully.”

She was referring to the university’s surprise announcement in 2006 that it had agreed to sell 45 acres of Yerkes land for about $9 million to a New York developer that planned to build a 100-room hotel and 72 homes. The agreement also called for preserving Yerkes and 30 acres around it, creating a conservation zone along the lake and providing more than $400,000 a year to support the observatory, in addition to several million dollars for educational outreach at Yerkes.

But “enormous community pushback” erupted over the university announcing an agreement without public input, said Charles Ebeling, a Yerkes Future Foundation member and retired McDonald’s executive. Residents also were angry with the anticipated traffic increases and changes to the property. In short order, the proposal died.

“We’ve reviewed that history carefully,” Fithian said at the public meeting in March. “We understand mistakes that were made and believe we’ve learned lessons. I want to assure you that we genuinely have no plan in place, no secret plan. There are no sidebar conversations happening. We’re trying to do better this time.”

U. of C. has created a Yerkes Updates website, where it reports that from April to mid-June, the university sought “expressions of interest” for the Yerkes land that balance “the current facilities and continued public programming with responsible financial stewardship of the property assets.”

The university also reserved the right to consider offers after mid-June.

Discussions about any such proposals will be confidential, the university stated, but the institution plans “ongoing engagement with the village board” while evaluating proposals. “What we hear will help guide the decision-making process,” the university stated on the website.

School officials declined interviews and wouldn’t discuss the number, type or origin of proposals they’ve received.

In an email, university spokesman Jeremy Manier said the institution has “been in touch with the (village) board periodically” and “will have more to discuss on the transition timeline in August.”

Weddings at the observatory?

So far, U. of C. has been “a class act, very responsive and helpful” to work with, Colman said. But dealing with a large entity that deliberates so long on each of the foundation’s questions has been “very cumbersome,” she added.

Engquist, the local trustee, is less pleased. She said the university has failed to share information with the village, which she called “a conundrum that doesn’t bode well.” She also criticized the university for leaving what she considered insufficient time to find a new Yerkes owner.

“I think their timing sucks,” she said.

Publicly, village trustees avoid expressing a preferred plan for Yerkes, a position that earned the board grief in a local editorial, which expressed fear that the village will be “steamrolled by some developer or other business concern that looks at Yerkes and sees only dollar signs.”

The preference of the Yerkes Future Foundation, which formed weeks after the observatory’s announced closing, is for the property to become an educational outreach and research center, as well as an event space for weddings and other functions, Colman said.

Whether those uses could sustain Yerkes is debatable. Ebeling and others say upward of $20 million would be needed to purchase the land and observatory and upgrade it. He added that “many local residents, either by themselves or with a few of their neighbors, could take care of this situation.”

“We wouldn’t be messing around if we didn’t think we could do it,” he added, “but I’m not writing the check to take care of it.”

Village President Bill Duncan noted that building on the property’s lakefront would be complicated by its slope and location in an environmentally protected corridor.

Also, Duncan said, residents have made it clear that any plan to build a dense residential development on the property “isn’t going to fly.”

Local resident Nathan Bond, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, said he would support development on the Yerkes property, if the observatory and land that immediately surrounds it would be preserved.

Construction of single-family, detached homes might generate tax revenue to preserve and maintain the core of Yerkes, he said. Bond added that he doesn’t like the idea of building on the site but he is “desperate to see it preserved.”

“It’s a complex situation, and it requires a complex solution where probably no one would be totally happy in the end,” Bond said. “That’s how compromises work.”

Residents, he said, must decide what the essential elements of their community are.

Duncan said he expects to hear the university’s ideas for the property around mid-July.

tgregory@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @tgregoryreports

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4062701932_59b0acdc52_m The University of Chicago has, once again after 13 years, decided to close famed Yerkes Observatory, the birthplace of American astrophysics and still home to the world’s largest operating lens type telescope. The University’s previous effort to shut down Yerkes began in 2005, when the college announced they planned to sell Yerkes to Mirbeau, an eastern resort company, for $10 million, to build a spa/resort on the lakefront Yerkes property and homes around the observatory main complex. The fate of the observatory structure and its contents were left up in the air.

The Lake Geneva community rose up at the prospective desecration of this beloved historical cradle of American astronomy, that includes the last 550 feet of undeveloped shoreland on the 26-mile circumference, spring-fed Lake Geneva, as well as acres of adjacent heavily wooded, steep land that had remained untouched for 120 years, since the university acquired it.

The uproar from the lakes community, university alumni, the news media and astronomy fans across the globe was so strong that by 2007 UC withdrew from their contract with Mirbeau, and agreed to continue to operate and invest in Yerkes as an astro-science education facility. Then just a few weeks ago,  the university issued a news release saying that it once again plans to permanently close the doors at Yerkes, on October 1, 2018. Their subsequent plans for the observatory and its full 77-acre site are yet unknown. They have indicated they are open to proposals, though no potential terms have yet been announced. The local community is gathering forces and planning what steps to take to preserve this legendary stairway to the stars.

Yerkes Observatory opened the world’s eyes to the wonders of the universe, and the long lenses still playing across the night skies continue to have the capacity to open the minds of young people everywhere to new possibilities. Hopefully, the great university and the community that has been home to Yerkes for 120 years will use that long perspective to pave the way to an even brighter future for Yerkes, the great stargazer.

Yesterday, the University of Chicago, in a terse, surprise announcement, said that it intends to permanently cease operations and close historic Yerkes Observatory, which it has owned and operated since 1897. The closure is planned for October this year. It is where black holes were discovered and is one of the world’s original astrophysical laboratories, and home to what is still the world’s largest refracting telescope, the great 40-incher.

The complete news release from the University of Chicago is below.

This news apparently came as a total surprise to the staff and faculty at the observatory, located near Lake Geneva’s north shore in Williams Bay. About 10 years ago, the university sold the observatory and its approximately 80-acre lakeside site to a resort developer. The lake community, which prides itself on the conservation of natural lands and water through the region, and for which the observatory is virtually its trademark to both residents and tourists, rose up, and with the influence of university alumni and the news media, convinced the university to cancel that sale and continue operations, reinvesting in the facility and evolving from a focus on astronomical research to education.

What will become of the famed facility and its staff and faculty? No one yet knows.

Is it possible the university might donate or sell the observatory and its valuable site, which includes that last 550 feet of undeveloped shoreline on Lake Geneva, to some not-for-profit organization to operate as a museum, research or education center? Such candidates might include the observatory’s next door neighbor on the lake, George Williams College (an operation of Aurora University in Illinois), or the University of Wisconsin, or the Wisconsin Historical Society (which owns and operates the Black Point estate across the lake), or the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, or the Village of Williams Bay, or the Geneva Lake Museum?

Whatever course evolves, this grand architectural and scientific institution, which has been maintained in excellent condition for more than a century deserves resurrection and a place in the Lake Geneva area’s future, not just its past. What is needed is big thinking, that is as grand as the observatory and the universe it was built to explore. If developing that vision needs a hand, perhaps the world’s largest refracting telescope can help.

News Release from the University of Chicago:

UChicago activities at Yerkes Observatory to end in 2018

The University of Chicago has announced plans to wind down its activities at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., over the next six months and to formally cease on-site operations by Oct. 1, 2018.

The upcoming summer season will therefore be the final season of University activities at Yerkes. The University is announcing the plans well in advance in order to engage with Yerkes staff and nearby communities, including the village of Williams Bay, in considering long-term plans for the property.

Despite its important history, the Yerkes facility and its instrumentation no longer contribute directly to the research mission of the University of Chicago, which has made major investments in the Magellan and Giant Magellan telescopes in Chile. Yerkes has continued to make important contributions through its education and outreach programs, and that work, which remains important to the University, will now relocate 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.”

Since the observatory was established by the University in 1897, it 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 UChicago’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. “We currently have no specific plans nor have we approached any potential buyers.”

Derek Douglas, vice president for civic engagement and external affairs, will represent the University in discussing options with the leadership of Williams Bay and its residents starting this month.

 

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Today is the 143rd anniversary of the Chicago Fire. On that fateful day in 1871, much of Chicago burned, as did Peshtigo, Wisconsin, with the greatest loss of life in any American fire, as well as the fellow upper midwestern cities of Holland and Manistee, Michigan, all on the same day! Many wealthy Chicagoans, displaced by the fire, used the recently opened railroad to move their families to new estates along the rocky, un-farmable shores of Lake Geneva (some call it Geneva Lake), while the city was being rebuilt. Many stayed, at least to enjoy the lake as a summer home. Millions, then billions were invested to turn rustic Lake Geneva into what came to be known as “The Newport of the West” for the wealthy and a tourist haven for the multitudes of Chicago and Milwaukee and Rockford. Would the Lake Geneva of 2014 have been better off without the Chicago Fire of 1871? Good question. While much of the shore of the lake is still beautifully wooded, and the deep, spring-fed waters remain fresh, increasing numbers of white McMansions break the natural shoreline, and hundreds of boats, increasingly fast power boats criss-cross the lake. Yet lake area residents are more and more sensitized to what environmental conservation means to the importance of their natural inheritance. The modern concept of “re-wilding,” or restoring natural surroundings and native wildlife is taking a foothold.

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Cider, who like all our cats past and present has an apple-linked name (except for Banner who came to us pre-named), is our senior feline at Applewood Lodge. Also, like his female friend Gala, he started out as a barn cat, and did well in life, so is now happily enjoying middle class retirement.

As we speak, Cider is lying down in front of the computer screen, hanging his head over the desk to watch me type. He is right out of “Central Catting.”

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Through the 70s and early 80’s, the top daytime radio conversational interview show out of Chicago was the Bob and Betty Sanders Show, over the 50,000 watt clear channel WBBM News Radio 78, from 10 to 2. I was one of their tens of thousands of regular listeners across the Midwest, while shuttling on the Eisenhower Expressway between my Michigan Avenue office and my client, McDonald’s, in Oak Brook. Bob and Betty later retired to Williams Bay, on the shores of their beloved Lake Geneva. Bob missed the radio show give and take, so Betty helped him organize a discussion group, which came to be called the Sanders Session. It was sort of like the show, but without the radio.

Bob passed away last year, but the Sanders Session goes on, meeting every few weeks. This week, Betty dropped in and reminisced with the group, sharing stories from their many years on the air, in which virtually every visiting celebrity of the era was a guest on their show. We were honored to have Betty sit in on one of the continuing meetings of The Sanders Session. Bob and Betty started something, and we don’t want to let it go.

Vicki at Naples, 2014

Of course, the deep freeze continues here in Wisconsin, through today, March 4th. Saturday night, I won the prize for first indoor ice fall. Venturing onto the back deck to grill some steaks, I came in across the carpet and then stepped onto the varnished wooden hall floor. Because there was snow on the soles of my slippers, I went down hard, crunching my right knee and twisting my left leg. How stupid — falling on the ice, indoors! Three days later, I’m hobbling around, still with sore muscles and an aching knee, but otherwise, nothing broken but my self respect. I herar the docks on Lake Geneva may not get put in fully until July this year.

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I drove by the shore at Fontana on Lake Geneva just past dawn the other day, and out of the mist, two paddle boarders appeared, coming in off the lake, greeted by a fellow on the dock with his dog. It was 24 degrees — pretty cool for late October — and so the air was colder than the water. Our local paper, the Lake Geneva Regional News, ran the photo this week in color.

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