By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Dec 14, 2021 at 9:02 AM

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Every now and again I’m faced with a subject so rich in facts and history and details that I can’t imagine I’ll ever get it all into the story.

Like this article about the Yerkes Observatory, which was designed by Henry Ives Cobb, architect of Chicago’s landmark Newberry Library and the Chicago Athletic Association.

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Which was founded by University of Chicago solar astronomer George Ellery Hale when he was just 24 years old.

Which was one of just two places that Albert Einstein said he absolutely had to see on his first visit to the United States (the other was Niagara Falls) in 1921.

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Which for years had the world’s largest telescope (until Hale built three more successive world’s largest telescopes elsewhere).

Which has hosted everyone from Gerard Kuiper (of the Kuiper Belt fame) to Nobel Prize winner Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (who occupied the coolest office) to Carl Sagan to NASA’s first Chief of Astronomy Nancy Grace Roman.

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Library.
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Founder George Ellery Hale in 1913.
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Which has a library so extensive that when the current director randomly pulled a volume off one of the shelves, it was Edwin Hubble’s insanely complex mathematical dissertation, from which the first page was missing, replaced by a note saying it had been lent to NASA so it could be sent into space.

Which has objects – in addition to that dissertation with the still-missing page (Earth to NASA, please return it) – that have gone into space and others, including perhaps one of the first fat-tire bikes, that spent time at a research station in Antarctica.

Which has a 37.5-ton elevator platform that is 73 feet in diameter, making it most likely the world’s largest indoor elevator, though it rises just 26 feet, to allow astronomers to access the eyepiece of the telescope at different positions.

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Which sits on a large site that was landscaped by Olmsted Brothers, sons of Frederick Law Olmsted.

Which has a collection of technology so deep and wide (from punch cards to computer tape reels and beyond) that it could house a museum of that stuff alone.

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Which has a collection of hundreds of thousands of glass plate images made from the giant telescope that are in many cases the first images of stars, planets and other celestial objects and in some cases are still the only images of some of those objects.

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A bit of the Great Space Shield.
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Which has a multimillion-dollar piece of equipment that was developed in secret for the failed Reagan-era budget-busting SDI/Star Wars missile defense program (aka The Great Space Shield) and which was used at Yerkes to “detwinkle” the stars so that they could be photographed more accurately.

Which still has two robotic telescopes that are used by astronomers and other researchers and groups like the Japanese space agency to monitor satellite movements.

Which is where things like moons of Neptune and Uranus were discovered, as was carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of Mars and the atomic explosion of the T-Corona Borealis star, among other phenomena.

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Which is one of the most ornate and beautiful buildings in the state.

How will I ever get all that into the story? And why am I writing about the Yerkes Observatory, in Williams Bay – on Geneva Lake – now?

Well, because with restoration already underway, the Yerkes Observatory, now owned by the Yerkes Future Foundation, has hired a tour coordinator and is taking reservations for weddings and other events, because it expects to be ready to welcome the public again by next summer.

Dedicated in 1897 by the University of Chicago, after two years of construction, the Yerkes Observatory was a leading research center for more than a century, though by 2018 it had outlived its usefulness to the university. And so it was closed.

The university had tried to close Yerkes in 2005, too, with plans to sell it to a developer, that wanted to build a golf resort and use the Yerkes building as the clubhouse.

“People rose up and there was a huge response,” says current director Dennis Kois. “A bunch of their major donors are around the lake and they were all against it. That died a quick death.”

But something had to happen, because the university clearly didn’t want the Yerkes anymore.

“There just wasn’t a research purpose for it anymore,” Kois adds. “It was this problem site that cost them a lot of money and they just didn't want to deal with it anymore.”

This time around, when the university announced the closing, it took a different approach.

“(They) said, ‘we'll entertain proposals from the community’,” says Kois. “‘We are going to be closing it, but ultimately we want to have it serve the community's purpose.’ So a group of local wealthy individuals formed a nonprofit and started a negotiation with the university.

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Charles Tyson Yerkes.
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“That went on for close to a year and in the end (they) agreed to hand off the building, the scientific equipment, the telescopes and 50 acres of land, basically, to the foundation.”

Another 10 acres of prime lake frontage real estate was not included. That, instead, was sold to another nonprofit for a conference center that Kois expects will work in concert with the foundation on a variety of initiatives.

A little history

The Yerkes was established in 1892 with money donated by financier Charles T, Yerkes, a famously unbeloved figure whose money and drive helped create the subways/elevated railways in London and Chicago.

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After scandals that included divorce, hostile takeovers, bribery, fraud, embezzlement, blackmail and speculative deals, Yerkes was eager to burnish his disastrous public image and he saw a chance to do so by donating about $300,000 to the University of Chicago for the creation of the observatory Hale was pushing to create.

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A depiction of Yerkes.
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Yerkes’ condition was that the facility be built within 100 miles of Chicago. While an observatory in a distant location might actually better serve science, it was less likely to buy him some goodwill at home in the Windy City.

It seems that the observatory – which includes numerous decorative details that depict its namesake as a goat and a horned devil – did little to change attitudes toward Yerkes and in 1899 he finally fled the Midwest for New York City and then London.

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Another portrait of Yerkes, this one with horns.
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Although funded by Yerkes, the institution itself was founded by George Ellery Hale, who was born in Chicago in 1868. With the encouragement of his father’s friend Daniel Burnham, Hale enrolled at age 17 at MIT. He later attended Harvard College Observatory and began PhD work in Berlin.

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Construction of the pedestal.
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By then Hale was already a young associate professor at UC, a gig surely secured in light of the fact that while an undergrad at MIT, he had invented the spectroheliograph which allowed him to discover solar vortexes. He was, at the same time, a professor at Beloit College.

His new observatory – which cost about $500,000 in the end – featured a giant dome with a retractable roof above a 40-inch refracting telescope, which was for a number of years the largest in the world. It attracted much attention and many scientists to the Yerkes.

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The elevator control panel.
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The six-ton, 60-foot telescope sits atop a whopping 43-foot-tall brick base around which sits the elevator platform that could raise and lower to allow astronomers to access the eyepiece, which would sit at different levels depending on the angle of the telescope required to view the desired spot in the heavens.

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A glass plate photo of an eclipse.
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Although many looked through the telescope, much of the work was aimed at photography. Large glass plates were loaded into the telescope for exposures that sometimes took three hours and required the scientists to slowly move the telescope to account for the Earth’s rotation.

The plates were then developed in a mobile wooden darkroom that still sits atop the elevator platform, next to the telescope and the movable wooden ladder that allowed access to the eyepiece.

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The mobile darkroom.
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Inside the giant dome, there’s a large portion of wall constructed of bricks of a different color than the bulk of the building.

Kois says that just before the 1897 dedication, there was a partial collapse because the weight of the telescope was greater than expected. He suspects the rebuilding work that followed may account for the different colored bricks.

After we check out the telescope, elevator and the area beneath it, Kois walks me through the old library storage area where there are still many books – like Halton Arp’s “Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies,” for example – though the bulk of the collection has already been processed to separate the wheat from the chaff (i.e. rare volumes vs. ones that are easily found in many libraries).

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Research library.
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Randomly lifting a stack of magazines off the shelf, I notice that they are Scientific Americans dating to the 1890s. (Kois says the Yerkes has dozens of issues that bear the signature of Hale, who wrote his name on his issues as they’d arrive.)

We also peek into a series of offices, some of unusual shape to accommodate the curvature of the domed sections of the building. Chandrasekhar’s office has a stunning floor-to-ceiling glass-doored display case/bookshelf that follows the gentle curve of the wall behind it.

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Chandrasekhar’s office.
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The shelves are lined with items from Yerkes’ history, including some that belonged to Hale.

We check out a robotic telescope in one of the two smaller domes by ascending a spiral staircase.

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The 24-inch robotic telescope.
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“Both telescopes date from the late '60s, and subsequently have been roboticized with custom programs,” Kois says. “On a nice summer night, this dome will open, the telescope will move itself around and execute a shot list from astronomers that have requested it elsewhere in the world, which is how astronomy is done now. Nobody travels, nobody stays up overnight. It's all basically files and data processing.

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The Kuiper sphere.
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“This one is 24 inches. The (one on the) other side is 40 (inches), which is as big as the giant telescope, but it fits in the same size dome (as the 24-inch).”

Nearby in a room that has an long, low brick-and-stone solar light table for research that was built with the observatory – astronomers studied the sun during the day and the stars at night – we see the wooden sphere that Kuiper had built during his tenure at Yerkes to experiment with projecting photos of the moon onto a sphere to get a more accurate representation of the surface.

Kois says that the sphere may have helped NASA select a site for the first moon landing in 1969.

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We pop into the machine shop were a staff of machinists made and repaired parts for the telescopes, and visit a room full of some of those objects that have been to space and back. We pass through a couple rooms packed full of ancient technology and we look at all the detail in the amazing central domed atrium.

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We even get to see one of the old-style analog adding machines used by women – “Hidden Figures”-style – in the basement to tell the astronomers where to aim the giant telescope.

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We stop to check out a pair of extremely rare, just-restored sidereal clocks that have been at the observatory since the beginning.

Outside we gaze at all the architectural detail and Kois points out less-than-flattering depictions of the then-president of the University of Chicago, William Rainey Harper, and of UC donor John D. Rockefeller, who is shown with a bee stinging his swollen nose, suggesting that he was being stung for cash by the university.

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John D. Rockfeller, sans bee.
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You can still see the chisel marks left after Hale demanded the bees be removed.

There are depictions of Athena looking like the Statue of Liberty on a chariot, signs of the Zodiac, phases of moon, a variety of animals and some things I can’t even begin to explain, like this:what?X

The restoration

Restoration work has been ongoing for a while now and the observatory recently got a new roof, as well as masonry repair.

“We're working with a company called Marion Restoration that's worked on the Alamo, the Wisconsin Capitol. They worked on the side of the Met(ropolitan Museum of Art in New York)  when I was there,” says Kois. “Brick by brick everything was taken apart. Everything that was damaged was either stainless steel pinned (or recreated), everything's hand cleaned. Reclamation of all the bricks that could be preserved or conserved, and then rebuilt.

“If we look on the other side there's just a rough brick wall, because we don't have enough of these face bricks to finish the other side. So this winter we're making 10,000 hand-cast bricks in the U.K., which are then going to be shipped over.”

Milwaukee's Pierce Engineers is the masonry and structural engineer on the restoration and Abacus is the architect.

"Preservation work at Yerkes has focused repairing areas where previous inexperienced contractors used improper modern hard and non-breathable mortars," says Pierce's Project Manager, Jonathan Hoeltke, PE. "Historic mass masonry structures react differently to temperature changes and water infiltration than modern buildings. 

"Unlike modern buildings, historic masonry structures of this era utilize special soft lime mineral mortars to regulate the absorption and expulsion of moisture, often referred to as 'breathing' like living beings.  If improper modern mortar or paint is applied to historic masonry, excess moisture becomes trapped within the wall system, damaging the masonry."

Each summer, the restoration will move down another level until the entire exterior is completed, likely in four or five years and to the tune of about $15 million.

"Each year PE and Marion work together to develop the prioritized scope to meet the owner’s programming and available budget," says Hoeltke. In the future, work will transition to more typical preservation of weather deteriorated joints and sealant work. 

"As Yerkes finds new life and purpose with continued astronomical research and developing new programming opportunities, PE and the full preservation team continue to strive to keep the Yerkes Observatory a beautiful operational and sustainable facility for the next century and beyond."

New skylights are being fabricated so that the long-closed old ones can be replaced, a new parking lot has been built, a house on the property will be renovated, a small modern training observatory and another house will be torn down, many dead trees have been removed and new ones planted.

The landscaping work is being done with the original Olmsted plan in mind.

“A lot of what he designed is here still,” says Kois. “Almost all these large trees are in the original plan. We're putting in pollinator gardens. We're putting in welcome gardens. We're restring that landscape. That work's all ongoing.

A series of trails around the 50-acre property will also be installed.

“The fundraising is going really well. We’re raising a lot of money,” says Kois, “and spending it as quickly as it comes in.”

The future of Yerkes

So, what’s it all for? What’s the plan for the future? Well, it is a diverse one, which makes sense for an institution like this one.

“Some people come for the landscape and walking around the trails,” says Kois. “Some people come for architecture and history. Some people come because they can look through the historic telescope or spend an overnight. And some people come because we'll be doing programs.”

It will be a museum, of course, but not entirely and not only.

“The plan ultimately is to create a publicly accessible site that is, for lack of a better phrase, a pilgrimage site for people who are interested in science, big ideas or how we understand the world around us,” says Kois.

“It's going to have elements that are like a museum, so there'll be some exhibits. There'll be some interactives. There'll be a science playground for families. But there's also going to be a programming.”

The former home that is being renovated will become a residency house for visiting writers, composers, artists, science authors.

“You can bring in (artists like) Andy Goldsworthy and do summer sculpture projects that relate to science. Sci-fi film festival on the lawn? Great! Corporate rentals – we just got a gift to build the big glass pavilion out in the park that'll be like a welcome center and it can be used for events.

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“Ultimately it'll be a multi-faceted site, but all sort of oriented around discovery and big ideas and science.”

Kois says that kind of venue is something that’s lacking.

“I came out of an art museum,” he says referring to his previous job at Burchfield Penney Art Center at SUNY Buffalo in New York state, “and in the world of art there's tons of sites that are kind of pilgrimage sites that people who are deep, deep into this stuff will go.

“Same thing in music, right? But there's not an equivalent pilgrimage site for science. There are things like you can go to, like NASA, but there's not a holistic site where people who have a generalized interest in these big ideas and discoveries and space exploration can go and have a day-long or multi-day experience like that.

“To me that's the opportunity because of the history of this place.”

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.