Yerkes

Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay has faced an uncertain future since the facility was closed to the public last year. (File photo/Regional News)

WILLIAMS BAY — A group called the Yerkes Future Foundation is connecting with a group of other observatories that want to preserve their past by ensuring their future.

Representatives from the Yerkes Observatory group joined their counterparts from four other astronomical facilities June 15 in California to discuss the directions they might follow in trying to preserve the legacy of their fading facilities.

Since the University of Chicago last year closed Yerkes Observatory, boosters have formed the Yerkes Future Foundation in hopes of taking over and preserving the historic Williams Bay property.

Among the attendees at the California meeting was Ian McLennan, a consultant who is working with the Yerkes foundation.

McLennan, who is from Vancouver, British Columbia, said he attended the gathering at the request of Dianna Colman, who chairs the foundation’s board of directors.

Colman said she had planned to attend, but had to cancel for a friend’s funeral.

Others attended the meeting to represent the Mt. Wilson, Mt. Palomar and Lowell observatories, all located in California, and the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope Observatory, which is in Arizona.

Colman said the observatories’ directors had been discussing forming an alliance to discuss preservation, education and development of collaborative programs.

“Is it a great idea? Yeah. But it’s a lot to put together,” she said.

The University of Chicago has not announced its plans for the future of the 77-acre Yerkes campus in Williams Bay, although it has indicated that talks are underway with the Yerkes Future Foundation.

Also in attendance at the California gathering was Susan Yerkes of San Antonio, Texas, an heir to the founder of the Yerkes Observatory.

Susan Yerkes has not talked publicly about her wishes for the future of Yerkes Observatory, but she posted on Facebook her support for the work being done by the new alliance of observatories.

In one Facebook post, Yerkes said she had met with Sam Hale, a grandson of George Ellery Hale, the scientist who designed the Yerkes Observatory and the observatories at Mt. Wilson and Mt. Palomar.

Yerkes said that with Hale, she worked with Tom Meneghini, director of the Mt. Wilson Observatory, and they settled on creating an alliance that includes the Yerkes Future Foundation and other observatories and groups.

Colman said the group plans to meet again in October, and she intends to participate.

Meneghini said the group is still in the preliminary organization stage. Although the group’s proposed name is Alliance of Historic Observatories, there is no charter or direction set out yet.

“All of these observatories have a page in creating astronomy as a science,” he said.

At the first meeting, the representatives discussed their observatories’ strengths, weaknesses, challenges and threats.

He said that his observatory, Mt. Wilson, is in nearly the same situation as Yerkes was before the University of Chicago closed the facility to the public on Oct. 1.

“Mt. Wilson isn’t doing much science,” he said.

The University of Chicago has said that the Yerkes Observatory, which operates for more than 120 years, had grown obsolete as a scientific research facility.

Meheghini said the facilities in the new alliance could collaborate with one another on an educational mission.

“We’re crunching our numbers and crunching our heads,” he said.

Meneghini said he believes the fledgling organization should focus on facilities that Hale built or helped to build, which would include Yerkes, Mt. Wilson and Mt. Palomar.

Yerkes boosters believe decisions about the future of the Williams Bay property have been held up by founder Charles Yerkes’ desire to transfer ownership directly to his heirs if the university ever stopped using the observatory for research.

While all the observatories represented at the meeting are facing challenges, Meneghini said that Yerkes “is the facility that’s most endangered.”

The University of Chicago has indicated that it is in contact with Yerkes family heirs.

Colman said she has heard nothing from the university recently about negotiations with the heirs.

“I keep pushing, but I’m not making any progress,” she said.

McLennan said that he does consulting for museums and organizations that have a scientific and educational purpose. He also assists in developing a budget that accounts for an organization’s fundraising capabilities.

He said he is working with the Yerkes foundation to develop a master plan, which is about halfway completed.

“There still might be a research function,” he said, “but the educational function would be its primary operation as an institution.”

Coleman said the Yerkes Future Foundation cannot wait for the University of Chicago to resolve issues surrounding ownership control of Yerkes Observatory. The foundation must move forward and make plans.

“I’m still focused on getting the (Yerkes foundation) to take over operation of the observatory,” she said.

Chris Schultz has been a reporter for more than 40 years. He has been with the Lake Geneva Regional since 2010. He covers the Lake Geneva City Council and the Lake Geneva area schools.