Yerkes Observatory

Posted by Anonymous
on Friday, October 27, 2006
Robber Baron: The Life of Charles Tyson Yerkes (University of Illinois Press, 2006). Yerkes has some name-recognition among skywatchers ― his generosity established the world-famous observatory that bears his name in Williams Bay, Wisconsin.  Yerkes certainly earned the title “robber baron.” His life, thoroughly recounted by Franch, bares many similarities to contemporaries like Andrew Carnegie or J. P. Morgan. The lesson learned from Yerkes and his ilk: No matter how corrupt you are in acquiring your fortune, you can apply luster to your legacy through philanthropy. Their ambitious and unscrupulous behavior led to building and expanding universities, libraries, hospitals, and yes, even an observatory.


While I read about Charles Yerkes, the observatory continued to come to my mind. In June, the University of Chicago, which owns Yerkes, announced its intent to sell the observatory and much of the surrounding property to Mirbeau Corporation for $8 million. Because southeast Wisconsin isn’t a hotbed for observational research, the university felt it could part with the property. The money will help fund the private university’s astronomy department.

Mirbeau wants to build a spa, resort, and about 70 homes around the world’s largest refracting telescope. Before Albert Einstein visited the United States in 1921, he wrote that he wanted to visit Yerkes. I suppose if he were still alive, he would still want to visit Yerkes, but might pass on a hot-rock massage or mud bath.

The university had received a proposal from nearby Aurora University for $4.5 million. Astronomers worldwide and the Williams Bay community applauded this offer ― it would have sustained and expanded education and outreach programs on the grounds, limited construction, and controlled light pollution. But for a few million more, the University of Chicago chose the spa.

By the way, who co-founded the university? Oil magnate and robber baron John D. Rockefeller.

Don’t be surprised if the deal dies on the vine. The Village of Williams Bay is very protective of their community, and the Village Board is reluctant to rezone the property from education to commercial and residence. No rezoning, no sale ― and then it is back to the drawing board for the university.

Earlier this week I spoke on the phone with Kyle Cudworth, the only full-time faculty member left at Yerkes. Visit our podcast page to listen to his firsthand account about the impending sale.

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