On Tuesday of this week, my wife and I visited and toured the 121 year old Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. We had a day trip planned for Lake Geneva, WI., but the night before, while mapping out our itinerary, I happend to find the observatory on Google Maps, which was a surprise to me. I knew of Yerkes, but I hadn't realized it was next to the lake. Plans were changed and we arrived just in time for the last guided tour of the day. The building is normally locked, save for scheduled tours and authorized educational purposes.^ Main entrance facing north.
The refracting telescope boasts the largest of its kind 40-inch objective lens, which took several years to construct and grind. Small by today's standards, it held the record for any telescope for eleven years. The observatory has a bit of history, to say the least. Astronomer George Ellery Hale began his career there, in conjunction with the planning and construction of the telescope, from 1892 to 1895. Chicago industrialist Charles T. Yerkes was the principle financial benefactor of the project.
Other noted astronomers who have conducted research there include Edwin Hubble (The Hubble Constant, Hubble Space Telescope), Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (The Chandra Space Telescope), and Carl Sagan, to name a few.
The western dome that includes the Yerkes telescope is huge, even by today's standards. The circular wooden floor is actually an elevator, the second largest in the world, which can raise or lower around the scope's mount, three stories worth in elevation! This is to help with positioning experiments and viewing within the structure. The mount, seen in blue, actually begins another dozen feet below where you see it in this picture.
The University of Chicago, which owns the property, still uses the site to engineer scientific projects. NASA's SOFIA airborne telescope's wideband camera was designed here in 2012, which does work in the infrared. See, that is the tie-in with my Infrared photos. ^ part of the north-east minor dome housing one of many scopes on this site.
The grounds have been reduced over the years from the original pristine 77 acre site to about 30 acres due to the University selling off tracts of land to developers. In 2005, the university was considering shuttering the observatory and selling everything off to a developer, but the Williams Bay trustees refused to change the land's zoning from educational to residential. Some backtracking and agreements were made over the next several years to continue using the site, not for observations, but for educational development. ^ The rear of the building is as interesting as the front.
Luckily, this grand building and land surrounding it have, for now, been saved from the wrecking ball. The architecture alone is phenomenal, as you can see from the photos. In person, the structure is even more impressive, with liberal use of marble floors and walls, with elaborate terra-cotta inside and out following the methods used throughout Chicago's turn of the century architecture and especially following the styles used for University of Chicago's buildings. ^ Closeup of the entrance on the rear side. ^ A tighter closeup of the detail above the rear entrance.