Inside the 124-year-old observatory that birthed modern astrophysics

March 26, 2024 | by

They call Yerkes the birthplace of modern astrophysics, but when I visited the facility about two years ago, it looked more like a place teetering on extinction. The monumental telescope was draped in thick, clouded plastic sheeting that movie gangsters tend to use to wrap the bodies of their victims. It was a humbling state for a precision device that was once a magnet for the elite of astrophysicists and theoretical astronomers—Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble, Gerard Kuiper, and Carl Sagan among them.

But even as I tried to make out the telescope above, Yerkes was being reborn thanks to a $15 million facelift—inside and out—financed by a nonprofit group that took possession of the building in 2020. For the first time in more than a century, the observatory—including its 50-acre grounds—is open for public tours of its working space-science facility.

Over the past few years, Yerkes staff have been preparing for what they expect to be one of the busiest days the institution has ever seen: North America’s total solar eclipse on April 8, 2024. Williams Bay will see 90.2 percent totality, and Wisconsinites who don’t want to drive hundreds of miles to witness complete darkness could find no more compelling a setting for near totality than here beneath these storied domes.

(The best places to see the 2024 total solar eclipse.)

But the glories of Yerkes are not confined to the heavens: The building itself is a thing of beauty. Festooned with elaborate Victorian-era stone carvings, Romanesque arches, and terra-cotta figures, the landmark observatory was created by George Ellery Hale and Charles Tyson Yerkes—two men with very different agendas.


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