University of Chicago to transfer of ownership of Yerkes Observatory to Yerkes Future Foundation
The University of Chicago this week will transfer ownership of Yerkes Observatory and related property located in Williams Bay, Wisconsin to the Yerkes Future Foundation (YFF).
Leaders from the University and YFF discussed terms of the agreement in March at a meeting of the Village of Williams Bay Plan Commission. It reflects the commitment of both groups to be responsive to the interests of the Village of Williams Bay community, and the importance of providing a sound foundation for YFF as it prepares to lead Yerkes into the future.
As part of the transfer, scheduled for May 1, the University is donating to YFF the historic observatory campus, which includes the observatory building including the large telescopes, and other property on the site. The University also will make a significant monetary donation of seed funding for YFF at the time of transfer. This is to be followed by an additional cash donation by the University, drawing on proceeds from the planned sale of three rezoned parcels of University-owned lakefront property, for which the University’s applications are currently pending with the Village.
A small group of Geneva Lake residents formed the Yerkes Future Foundation in 2018, shortly after the University’s announcement that it would seek a new long-term steward for the observatory. YFF is dedicated to restoring the great, historic observatory as a monument to American achievements in astronomy and as an operating scientific and educational institution capable of carrying Yerkes’ contributions into the future.
“We are a small, community-focused foundation,” said YFF Chairwoman Dianna Colman, “but our ambitions for Yerkes are not only local and regional, but national and international. Thanks to the University of Chicago and its many Yerkes employees and scientists through the years, Yerkes has been well-maintained, and our goals include enhancing the magnificence of its structure, telescopes and grounds to continue its historic tourism appeal, and to maximize its educational and scientific potential as a forward-looking inspiration to generations of young scientific hopefuls.”
David Fithian, who has led the transfer process for the University of Chicago, said having a successor organization that is dedicated to Yerkes and the community provides an appropriate new chapter for the observatory.
“We are delighted that this process is concluding in a way that brings long-term benefits to the Williams Bay community and future visitors to Yerkes, while serving the future of astronomy and astrophysics research and education at the University of Chicago,” said Fithian.
In addition to YFF’s global outreach, YFF will also welcome members of the UChicago community to continue their distinct connection with Yerkes. YFF and the University have agreed to several long-term loans of the University’s astronomical equipment that YFF may use at Yerkes, including the observatory’s large collection of glass plates and several historically significant artifacts. Along with other visitors from around the world, YFF will welcome UChicago scientists, librarians, and students to continue projects and collaboration at Yerkes in the months and years ahead.
As introduced at the Plan Commission meeting in March, the University is seeking approval on the rezoning of the lakefront property to three residential lots. In making its rezoning proposal, the University listened closely to longstanding community concerns about high-density residential development. Dividing the lakefront property into three single-family residences is intended to address those concerns while providing important benefits:
- The three new residential lots will provide an expanded tax base for the Village of Williams Bay.
- YFF will receive a share from the proceeds of the sale of the rezoned lakefront lots per the Yerkes Observatory donation agreement. Thus, the marketing and sale of the lakefront property will create vital seed funding for YFF’s startup operations and sustained fiscal health, in addition to the University’s initial monetary donation.
- The remainder of the proceeds from the sale will help support the future of astronomy and astrophysics at UChicago, including the University’s major investments in the Magellan and Giant Magellan telescopes in Chile.
Both the University and YFF extended thanks to the Village of Williams Bay for the community’s dedication to Yerkes and its special place in the history and future of the area.
“We are deeply grateful to the Village of Williams Bay and the connection this community has to Yerkes,” Dianna Colman said. “Our hope is to maintain and develop this beautiful and important observatory as a jewel in the crown of this community for generations to come.”
The University of Chicago and the Yerkes Future Foundation have released the following joint statement:
The University of Chicago and the Yerkes Future Foundation (YFF) are pleased to announce an agreement in principle for transfer of ownership of Yerkes Observatory and related property located in Williams Bay, Wisconsin to the Yerkes Future Foundation. Over the next several months, both organizations will be working closely on all aspects of the proposed transfer. Additional information will be made available as appropriate.
YFF’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 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 YFF would like to express their appreciation for the support shown by the Yerkes family, the Village of Williams Bay and many educators and scientists.
As the University of Chicago proceeds with talks concerning the future of Yerkes Observatory, one point that has arisen is the potential interest among descendants of Charles T. Yerkes, the philanthropist whose gift first established the observatory in the 1890s. In recent months the University has met and spoken with descendants of Charles T. Yerkes and provided them with the original gift document [available here – see text version here], which involves only the main observatory building and refracting telescope. Out of respect for the descendants’ wishes, the University agreed not to disclose their names and connection at the time.
Following the observatory’s closure to the public on Oct. 1, the University has continued certain astronomical activities at the observatory, including the use of telescopes and curation of the observatory’s large collection of glass photographic plates. Apart from the main observatory building and the refracting telescope itself, the land and other structures of the Yerkes campus are the property of the University by virtue of other gifts or direct investments of University resources, and are not subject to the terms of the gift from Charles T. Yerkes. The University continues to evaluate and pursue options for the long-term operation of the Yerkes campus.
As part of this effort, the University will continue ongoing talks about the observatory’s future with interested parties, including representatives of Charles T. Yerkes’ descendants, the Village of Williams Bay, and the Yerkes Future Foundation, a non-profit organization located in Williams Bay. As we have indicated in public forums, the University understands that comprehensive plans for Yerkes may require approval by the Village of Williams Bay’s Board of Trustees. Throughout this process the University has sought to balance a number of priorities, including the need for a sustainable operational model, the community’s interest in continued public programming, and sustainable financial terms. We will continue to work with interested parties to facilitate the attainment of these goals.
The Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis. is now closed to the public. All tours and public events at the observatory have ceased. Some of the educational programs previously offered at the observatory have moved to UChicago's campus in Chicago and a new local organization, Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM, has plans to operate some programs at a new location in Williams Bay, not affiliated with UChicago. The University will continue to occasionally operate the telescopes at Yerkes to ensure the Observatory can continue to be used for research and education, and the large collection of glass photographic plates will continue to be available to researchers by appointment via the department Astronomy and Astrophysics.
Plan for closing Yerkes Observatory to public nears completion, as UChicago continues to seek new long-term steward
The University of Chicago is in the final steps of a plan to close Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis. to the public as of Oct. 1, 2018.
Preparations for the transition have been underway since the announcement in March that the University was searching for a new long-term steward for the observatory. Since then, the University has issued a call for proposals for the future of Yerkes, and engaged in talks over the summer with parties interested in the property.
Talks are continuing with the Yerkes Future Foundation, a non-profit organization located in Williams Bay. The University will share any plan for the future of the observatory with the Village of Williams Bay’s Board of Trustees.
“We remain hopeful that a new long-term steward can continue to support the observatory and its legacy, in keeping with the community’s high regard for that history and the potential for education,” said Derek Douglas, Vice President for Civic Engagement and External Affairs at UChicago.
The search for a new owner has been informed by discussions with many stakeholders, including a public meeting about the future of the property held on May 18, 2018. Speakers at that meeting expressed support for the observatory’s educational programs, along with concerns about the potential for high-density residential development on the site. In line with community priorities, the University is not considering any high-density development. Low-density residential use is being explored as part of a long-term plan for some of the land.
Some of the educational programs previously offered at the observatory will move to UChicago’s campus in Chicago, and the University understands that a new local organization has plans to operate some programs at a new location in Williams Bay, not affiliated with UChicago.
The University will continue to operate the telescopes at Yerkes after the closure to ensure the Observatory can continue to be used for astronomical research and investigation, and the large collection of glass photographic plates will continue to be available to researchers by appointment.
Educational Outreach Programs
Educational outreach programs previously offered through the University of Chicago’s Yerkes Observatory will move from the observatory after September 30, 2018 to a new location in Williams Bay, WI. After that time, they will be operated by Geneva Lake Astrophysics and STEAM, Inc. and will no longer be supported by the University of Chicago. Inquiries concerning these programs should be directed to GLAS Education (email: firstname.lastname@example.org, website: https://www.glaseducation.org).
UChicago holds public meeting on future of Yerkes Observatory property
Representatives from the University of Chicago listened to a wide range of input from community members in a public meeting about the future of the Yerkes Observatory property in Williams Bay, Wis., on May 18.
The meeting followed the University’s announcement in March that it will wind down its activities at Yerkes and formally cease on-site operations by Oct. 1, 2018. In late April the University posted a call for expressions of interest from those wishing to articulate a vision for the observatory’s future, including potential owners.
More than 300 people came to the public meeting in Williams Bay, with questions and comments from about 30 individuals and 42 written comment cards. The UChicago representatives were Derek Douglas, Vice President for Civic Engagement and External Affairs, and Edward W. Kolb, Dean of the Division of Physical Sciences. Douglas said the views expressed at the meeting will be an important consideration as the University continues to evaluates proposals.
“We are grateful to the people of Williams Bay for welcoming us to their community for this meeting,” Douglas said. “The people who attended made important points for us to consider, and the tone of the discussion was extremely respectful and constructive. We recognize that Yerkes means a great deal for many people, and this meeting reflected that.”
Douglas said there were a number of themes in the comments, including concern over who might purchase the property, the observatory’s valued role in education programs, and questions about how the University will evaluate proposals.
“We heard loud and clear that people do not want the University to approach this as an ordinary real estate transaction, and we agree,” Douglas said. He said the University is looking for proposals that balance a number of priorities, including the need for a sustainable operational model, the interest in continued public programming, and suitable financial terms.
The University’s call for Expressions of Interest requests that interested parties submit proposals before June 15. Proposals will be confidential at this stage, and the University will continue to share more information with the Village and others as the process unfolds, in coordination with parties who submit proposals.
University of Chicago Seeks Expressions of Interest in Yerkes Observatory
Yerkes Proposal Process - PDF
Public meeting on May 18, 2018
As part of the process to engage the community about the future of the Yerkes property, the University of Chicago will hold a public meeting at Williams Bay High School on Friday, May 18, 2018. The meeting will take place from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Williams Bay High School is located at 500 W. Geneva St., Williams Bay, Wis.
UChicago representatives speak at village meeting in Williams Bay, Wis.
At a public meeting held by the Village of Williams Bay, representatives from the University of Chicago took questions from the Village Board of Directors and heard comments from the public about the Yerkes property.
On March 7, 2018, the University of Chicago announced that it will end its activities at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., by Oct. 1, 2018. We will post updates to this site as they become available.
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