After the Yerkes Observatory closed its doors in October, the University of Chicago and the Yerkes Future Foundation have been moving closer to a deal for the facility, the local group’s chairwoman said last week.
But the university has said it still needs to negotiate details with the descendants of Charles T. Yerkes before a deal can be finalized.
The foundation’s Dianna Colman said she could not give a dollar amount being discussed because of the ongoing nature of the negotiations.
“At this point, we’re pretty close together in terms of conceptually where we think the observatory should be over the next century,” she said. “Now we’re just going through a lot of the due diligence, looking at everything from utility bills to capital improvements and everything in between.”
The foundation’s main goal, Colman said, is to preserve and protect the observatory.
She said they are listening to various constituent groups, whether it be scientists, astronomers or sixth-graders.
“We know that there needs to be some upgrading to equipment,” Colman said. “And just a little bit more of an open-door policy for colleges and universities in the Midwest area to come in and use the equipment, learn from it, explore the history of it.”
Overall, however, she said the observatory is a “spectacularly beautiful building” that is the “birthplace of astrophysics in the United States.”
“It just has an incredible history,” she said.
The university also has to deal with the Yerkes family which, according to the original donation agreement, has some control over the facility—the main observatory building and refracting telescope, to be specific.
Yerkes’ gift first established the observatory in the 1890s, according to a Nov. 30 post by the university.
“To have and to hold unto the said Trustees (of the University of Chicago) and their successors so long as they shall use the same for the purpose of astronomical investigation,” the agreement reads. “But upon their failure to do so, the property hereby conveyed shall revert to the said Charles T. Yerkes or his heirs at law, the same as if this conveyance had never been made.”
The observatory officially closed to the public in October when tours and events ended.
When the university first announced the closure in March, Colman said a group of 40 or 50 people met to kick around ideas for preserving the observatory. Then, a group of eight began the task of figuring out how to gain ownership of the site.
In July, the foundation gave the university its first proposal. Since then, Colman, who is retired and lives in the town of Linn, said they have been in communication with the school consistently every few weeks.
“The University continues to evaluate and pursue options for the long-term operation of the Yerkes campus,” the university post states.
Comprehensive plans might need Williams Bay Village Board approval, according to the university.
An early goal for the foundation was to raise $10 million or $20 million, but Colman said they can’t start collecting donations until they secure the observatory.
So now they’re in a “holding pattern,” she said. Although she said the two sides were close, she did not know exactly when the foundation might reach a deal with the university.
“I really don’t know,” she said. “I wish I did because I’d love to plan some vacations for myself.”
Correction: This story was corrected Dec. 19 to say the deal is about a transfer of ownership and not a sale.