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New Ownership Rescues Historic Wisconsin Observatory

Friday, March 20, 2020
Yerkes Observatory
Photo: Hussardigital / CC BY-SA

The historic Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin has faced an uncertain future since 2018, when the University of Chicago shut down the 120-year-old facility described as “the birthplace of modern astrophysics.” But now it appears that the observatory will re-open as a tourist attraction and educational center, as the university has agreed to donate the property to a new private foundation.

The university announced the deal on March 10 to a packed auditorium at Williams Bay High School, according to a report in the Lake Geneva (Wis.) Regional News. Under the deal, the new Yerkes Future Foundation will assume ownership of the observatory and 50 acres of surrounding land. Some additional land will be sold for housing development.

When it opened in 1897, the observatory housed the world’s largest refracting telescope. The observatory and telescope were named after Charles Tyson Yerkes, a transit magnate who financed the construction. Scientists who used the observatory included Edwin Hubble, Gerard Kuiper, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, and Carl Sagan. Albert Einstein visited the facility in 1921.

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