Under an agreement between a local foundation and the University of Chicago, the university will transfer ownership of Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay to the Yerkes Future Foundation on Friday. The foundation hopes to eventually reopen the facility to the public.


A local foundation officially will own Yerkes Observatory and related property in Williams Bay after the University of Chicago completes a transfer of ownership Friday.

In an update shared Wednesday, the university said it is donating the observatory to the Yerkes Future Foundation, a group started by Geneva Lake residents in 2018 after the observatory closed. The donation also includes the telescopes and other property at the observatory.

While the amount was not disclosed, the university said it will make a “significant monetary donation of seed funding” to the foundation.

The university is also asking Williams Bay to rezone three parcels of university-owned lakefront land. Some proceeds from selling that land will be given to the foundation to help it get off the ground, according to the university.

The university in its announcement acknowledged community concerns about high-density residential development, but it pointed to two other potential benefits from rezoning the properties beyond what’s going to the foundation. Those are expanding the village’s tax base and supporting astronomy and astrophysics endeavors at the university.

The two sides also have agreed to “several long-term loans” of astronomical equipment from the university that the foundation may use at the observatory, the university said. This includes the “large” collection of glass plates and other artifacts.

In a memo shared before a Williams Bay Plan Commission meeting in March, the foundation outlined the “daunting” process to bring the observatory back into operating condition. The work includes getting permits approved by the village, fundraising and ensuring the building is safe to open.

It was not immediately clear how the COVID-19 pandemic is altering plans for getting the facility fixed and updated.

In early March before the pandemic hit Wisconsin, the memo said public tours could start as early as late summer.

The observatory closed to the public in October 2018.

In Wednesday’s announcement, the university said its scientists, librarians and students will be able to work on projects at the observatory “in the months and years ahead.”

Dianna Colman, foundation chairwoman, said the foundation’s ambitions for Yerkes are local, regional, national and international.

“Our goals include enhancing the magnificence of its structure, telescopes and grounds to continue its historic tourism appeal, and to maximize its educational and scientific potential as a forward-looking inspiration to generations of young scientific hopefuls,” she said in the announcement.

David Fithian, the university’s executive vice president who led the transfer process, said the foundation is “dedicated to Yerkes and the community.”

Colman said she appreciated the village and community’s connection to Yerkes.

“Our hope is to maintain and develop this beautiful and important observatory as a jewel in the crown of this community for generations to come,” she said.