Foundation, university reach agreement on unique observatory

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WILLIAMS BAY - A local foundation and the University of Chicago have reached an "agreement in principle" for the transfer of the Yerkes Observatory, but it will be many months before the historic facility reopens.

Dianna Colman of the Yerkes Future Foundation said Tuesday the agreement took about 18 months of discussion and she estimated another six months before the transfer to the foundation is completed.

Colman said no major issues remain to be negotiated, but many details need to be handled before a final agreement.

"I have a high level of confidence, and the people at the university are being really responsive," she said.

The university closed the 122-year-old observatory to the public in October 2018, although researchers continue to use it, according to the university.

The foundation seeks to revitalize the facility for public and educational tours, education and research.

The observatory's telescopes include a 40-inch refracting telescope, said to be the largest of its kind.

Colman said last December the foundation and university were close to an agreement but the legal interests of the Yerkes family had to be considered.

A provision in the original agreement gives the donor, Charles T. Yerkes, and his heirs a say if the university ever stopped maintaining the building as an astronomical observatory.

Colman on Tuesday would not say whether the heirs have signed off on the agreement.

Colman said the agreement envisions a "large collar of land" around the observatory, located near Geneva Lake, but she would not say how much land.

Colman said the foundation has been trying hard to be respectful of the Yerkes family, educators, researchers and people in Williams Bay who ask every day what's going on.

"It is really a much loved and much cared for place. They all want to see it become more vibrant, and that's been really so touching to hear all of the support," she said. "We would love to open it to other schools, and also the University of Chicago should be in that group because these people are amazing."

Coleman said the foundation has a goal of raising $20 million to $30 million for upgrades.

Foundation members, a broad mix of people living in the Geneva Lake area, are excited about what's ahead, Colman said.

"Obviously, everybody wants it open, but to open something when you're not ready is really foolish," Colman said, adding that staff needs to be hired, pictures rehung and cleaning and "moving things in and out" need to happen.

"What we want when we reopen is, we want people to walk in and say, "Oh, good," not, "Oh, they need to do some work."

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