Introduction to the building at Yerkes Observatory

Shortly after the founding of the University of Chicago in 1890, the first president William Rainey Harper began planning to build a distinguished and prestigious astronomy program. At the time, astronomy was picking up in popularity both in the realm of amateurs and academics. In the year 1893, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago introduced the 40-inch refracting telescope as an astronomical example of stargazing technology. Also in 1893, Harper hired George Ellery Hale as an associate professor of astrophysics. It was during this year that Harper and Hale conceived what would become known as Yerkes Observatory.

As the project developed, Hale took the lead in planning the building. Architect Henry Ives Cobb was chosen as the builder, given his prior work in Chicago for the University as well as the city. Since there were many requirements that needed to be met to form a proper research observatory, Hale essentially already had the building’s composition in mind. Due to the fact that Hale had previously built his own observatory in his father's back yard, Cobb worked off of and developed drawings already done by Hale. Hale gained inspiration for the building from Lick Observatory in California, and other examples in Germany, which are clearly seen as having influenced some design decisions.

The building was to consist of not only the housing for the telescope but also laboratories, workshops, and a library. The added functionality of the building raised the bar for observatories and paved the way for a stellar astrophysics program moving forward. Given this information, Cobb translated the requests of Hale into what we now see today. The foundation was laid in 1895, hence the markings on the two shields on either side of the entrance. The body of the building is made of brown brick, which made sense both financially and logistically, given Chicago was right at the beginning of a brick “Golden Age.” The more decorative elements of the exterior, such as the Corinthian Order pilasters, the ornate cornices, and the textured columns are made of cast terracotta. The terracotta and brown brick elements are intended to look as though they were carved out of stone. Terracotta and brick are of course an easy and cheap way of maintaining a distinguished and iconic look like many of the classical structures of ancient Rome and Greece.

The interior is just as ornate as the exterior, but is instead made of a light cast plaster so as to embody a sensation of weightlessness and expansion rather than confinement and boundedness. Just as many motifs are found inside Yerkes as are found on the exterior of the building. For example, the oculus in the center of the entrance symbolizes the sun and allows for an almost divine lighting of the space. Along the peripheral edges of the entrance room are caricatures in the form of William Rainey Harper, John D. Rockefeller, and even Charles Yerkes himself. Yerkes’ likeness is easiest to spot because of the thick moustaches on some of the sculptings. The interior details, though almost entirely aesthetic, are meant to amplify the use of the building. All the intricacies of the space align as manifestations of academic excellence, prosperity, and an undeniable pedigree.

The Great Dome, which spans 90 feet in diameter, was not in fact built by Cobb, but instead by King Iron Bridge and Manufacturing in the fall of 1896. The materials of the dome as well as the mechanics of it share several similarities with bridges of the time, and therefore, a bridge builder was commissioned. The dome is set on top of wheels like those on a train and placed on top of an iron track in order to allow the dome to rotate based on the position of the telescope inside. Structurally, the dome consists of an iron skeleton, on top of which there is a layer of wood sheathing to prevent dripping and leakage during inclement weather. On top of the wood cladding, there is a layer of tin paneling to serve both as an aesthetically pleasing and final protective measure.

The style of the building is classified as Beaux Arts, which is a mixture of Gothic, French Neoclassical, and American Renaissance styles. The way these genres manifest themselves in Yerkes are seen through an emphasis of symmetry, a raised first floor, arched windows, a flat roof, and other classical details. Hierarchical representation is an essential element of the Beaux Arts and the raised first floor as well as the grandeur of the entrance both represent the importance of the space. In order to enter the building, one must journey upwards and into the grand entrance. Physically and metaphorically the journey up the steps and into the grand entrance signifies a sort of passage into a room of the sky. Cobb was very well known for distinct and heavy horizontal lines, therefore the elevation of the entire first floor separates spaces inside of Yerkes from the earth itself. The raised floor as well as the magnificence of the entrance present Yerkes as a sort of portal, one through which access to the stars is gained.