With time and teamwork, Yerkes Observatory
shines brightly once again.
It took only two years to build Yerkes Observatory. But it will require a projected 10 years to renew, reclaim, and refurbish the building and grounds after more than a century of wear and tear, environmental damage, and deferred maintenance. Yerkes has commissioned a talented team of architects, landscape designers, artisans, and crafts and trades people to complete this awesome task. Many of them are local professionals and contractors, proud to be part of the effort to revive a community and international treasure. Follow their progress on our News page.
Beautifying a Beaux Arts masterpiece.
Building renovations have been ongoing since Yerkes Future Foundation took possession of the observatory from the University of Chicago in 2020, with replacement of weathered bricks on the front and rear parapets a priority. Decorative terracotta stonework on the front of the parapets is irreplaceable, so masonry crews have been removing the stones, marking them by location, storing them and then replacing them after the brickwork is repaired.
Additional exterior work included replacing the roof and skylights, and constructing a new, expanded parking lot with EV charging stations.
Inside the building, fresh paint has already brightened the entrance rotunda and an all-new electrical system has been installed. Other work in progress: converting former offices to public program and exhibit space; updating restrooms to ADA standards; refinishing hardwood floors and polishing Carrara marble walls; and decorating with new contemporary furniture, lighting, and fixtures.
The Great Refractor telescope inside the dome will receive a major tune-up, restoring it to a period-correct, historic standard for new programs. The observatory’s two small-dome reflecting telescopes will also receive technology upgrades for student and public use.
“In meetings with the contractors, I’ve been amazed at how excited and eager they are to tackle projects.”- Dianna Colman, Chair, Yerkes Future Foundation
Rooted in the original plan.
The Yerkes restoration team knew they wanted to return the observatory’s grounds to the landscaping conceived by Olmsted Brothers in 1906, a designed praised at the time as “grandiose.” Discovery of the original plan with a key of trees and plants showing where they should be placed provided the inspiration to dig in.
Planting new trees and clearing out invasive species are first steps. Many of the trees specified in the Olmsted plan are remarkably still in place, but some diseased ones will have to be removed. Trees not a part of the original design will be left as they are if healthy. Landscapers have made a commitment to procure replacement trees from area arboretums.
Additional projects around the grounds will include the installation of rain gardens to minimize water runoff into Geneva Lake, and the planting of a pollinator garden. To be located northeast of the observatory building, it will feature native pollinator plants and winding trails for visitors to explore.
According to a Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources survey in the 1980s, at least seven state record trees graced the park-like campus. Today, only one survives, a yellowwood. A revived landscape, though, will welcome nature lovers to a whole new spread of wonders in the spirit of Olmsted Brothers.
We are so lucky to have an enthusiastic genius like Roy Diblik from Northwind Perennial Farm shepherding us through our botanical metamorphosis. Roy’s unparalleled knowledge of growing native Midwestern perennials aesthetically and sustainably is precisely what we needed.
Our community is helping us grow! As our Welcome Garden on Geneva Street begins to take shape at our entrance, volunteer horticulturalists from around the Lake District always show up. Learning how to garden from Roy Diblik and having Midwest Prairies teach habitat restoration make it all the more appealing.
Tom and Janet Nickols picked up our new elm trees from the director of the Morton Arboretum’s elm project. Through Tom’s dedication and passion, we’ve created elm and oak savannas in pristine fields on our campus. Preserving the Olmsted plan’s legacy is one part of our mission, but another is making our own ecological mark to enhance experiences on our 50 acres.
The Eagle Scouts created a bluebird habitat on our campus. Eighteen bluebird houses dot our property. Thanks to guardians like these Eagle Scouts, Wisconsin now leads the nation in the number of bluebird fledglings. The Great Bluebird Comeback has made itself at home at Yerkes.
ne hundred Big Foot High School students cleared brush from our woods, pulled bricks from underneath our science and art residency home, helped organize our research library, and cleaned the student observatory domes. They gave us hard work and hope. We gave them tours and pizza.
In the Observatory’s south lawn on a hill above Geneva Lake is the Wisconsin champion yellowwood tree. If a star could spring from inside the earth, this would be what it looks like. Imagine how many groundbreaking astrophysicists have pondered the universe while staring at Yerkes’ yellowwood for more than a century.
A lens into tomorrow.
Stars do not stand still. Galaxies are perpetually on the move. And Yerkes Observatory has begun a new trajectory. In 2020, the University of Chicago graciously donated the observatory to the Yerkes Future Foundation. This wondrous gift sets in motion an ambitious plan to reimagine Yerkes as an open campus for open minds.
Yerkes will once again ask the question at the heart of all exploration: What’s out there? Only now, the field will encompass not only space, but also the arts, community life, music, recreation and more.
Imagine retreating to Yerkes to read or write. To visit on a warm summer’s night to hear your favorite band. To take a tour of the planets with an astronomer guide. To get married on the lakeshore or hold your rehearsal dinner in one of the observatory’s stately halls. To take a photography seminar or a painting class. To savor dinner and drinks in the dome with Wisconsin’s culinary artists.
By design, Yerkes will be a work in progress. We welcome community and guests from around the world not just to visit, but to lend ideas and imagination to our evolution.
For decades, astronomer William Morgan (who discovered the Milky Way is a spiral) and his family lived in the 1897 Victorian home on our site. We’re busy restoring it from the basement to the attic to accommodate residencies of all kinds. We welcome astronomers, scientists, visiting speakers, and artists to stay with us during their working time at Yerkes.
We’ve stripped Morgan House to the bones of its 19th century detail, but here’s a look at one of the work-in-progress dens overlooking the woods. This will be a communal area for visiting thinkers to talk, share a meal, read, or write.
Yerkes Observatory has been reinventing itself since the beginning. With astronomy and education at its core, it has also been a leader in photographic technology, engineering, instrument fabrication, and airborne cryogenics. As Yerkes reinvents itself again today, music and the arts come into play.
We’re over the moon about having painters, sculptors, and writers join our residency family. Looking forward, we’ll be building new art studios. Our woods, distinctive interior spaces and our residency home are inspiring places in which artists can create. It’s also only a hop, skip, and a jump right down to the lake.
The Parkitecture firm from Madison has designed five miles of trails, vistas, and connecting arteries on our 50 acres. Parkitecture’s brilliance will not only give visitors the chance to feel part of the symbiosis between Cobb’s Observatory and Olmsted’s landscape, but also allow the public to interact with the entire 50 acres for the first time ever.
Marion Restoration is readying us for the next hundred years. The only certified Restoration Conservator team in the Midwest, they are rejuvenating our Roman bricks, marble, terrazzo, and terracotta in the monumental work in progress. Look at our internationally recognized entryway dismantled then . . .
. . . and now. A sign that we’re back and here to stay!
Keep Yerkes open for a new generation of explorers
Help us continue
More than a century ago a determined founder, masterful architect, skilled trades workers, diligent engineers and inventive entrepreneurs built Yerkes. Visionary scientists put it on the galaxy’s map. A dedicated group of locals saved Yerkes for future generations. And now we look to you. Please consider becoming a contributor and friend of Yerkes Observatory. Your participation means everything.
Want to talk about an estate or legacy gift? Want to see if you can help us with your time as a volunteer?