Photography by: Terry Mayer
Lions and dragons and bears
Yerkes’ fanciful architecture provides clues in construction mystery
WILLIAMS BAY — The 40-inch Refractor, the world’s biggest lens-type telescope is the undisputed star in the year-round Saturday tours of Yerkes Observatory, but the winged lions, dragons and dwarves are popular, too.
Yerkes, built between 1895 and 1897 as part of the astronomy and astrophysics department of the University of Chicago, was designed as a research laboratory and an observatory that would hold a refracting telescope with a 40-inch diameter lens, a tube measuring 63 feet long, and a 75-foot diameter moveable floor to raise astronomers to the telescope eyepiece. The observatory is still used today for educational outreach.
But just as fascinating as the astrophysics of Yerkes is its architecture: a building teeming with dozens of terra-cotta creatures, figures and decorations that were the product of its architect, Henry Ives Cobb.
“I’m astonished by how much there is and how this man could fit it all together,” said veteran Yerkes tour guide Richard Dreiser. “It shouldn’t work, but somehow it all does.”
Cobb was also the architect of the University of Chicago, a complex adorned with carved limestone griffins and grotesque figures in the English Gothic style. Because Gothic was associated with many great European universities, Cobb wanted to use the style at Yerkes as well. University officials, however, insisted on another style: Greco-Roman Revival.
Yerkes Observatory is a mixture of yellow Roman Brick and cast terra cotta, the latter created by the Terra Cotta Works in McHenry, Ill. Because the company no longer exists, no one knows what happened to the molds that were used to cast the figures. But almost all of the details of the building’s designs are shrouded in mystery.
“For one thing, the architect requested before dying that all his papers, notes and drawings be completely destroyed and apparently that was done,” Dreiser said. “So we’ve had to figure out what it all means. I sometimes tell the public that perhaps the reason why all the notes are destroyed is in the notes, which is another way of saying, ‘We don’t know.’”
Some details are clearly connected to astronomy, such as the signs of the zodiac, which, Dreiser reminds visitors, are actually an ancient map of the sky. Zodiac symbols appear on sets of pillars flanking the building’s front entrance, on twin globes atop the roof, and at various points along the outside walls. In an alcove just outside the front door there’s a relief of the phases of the moon, complete with whimsical man-in-the-moon faces. There are representations of constellations like Ursae Majoris in the form of a bear, or Draco, a dragon. There are even Chinese symbols of an eclipse: a dragon devouring the sun.
Other details point to people associated with the building’s history. The terra-cotta pillars in the entranceway were constructed in three identical sections, each pillar turned a slightly different way so visitors can see the details on all sides. Among the repeated images is a calm face that looks like photos of William Rainey Harper, the first president of the University of Chicago. Another grimacing face is supposed to be Rainey too, in a less happy mood.
A face with a large, swollen nose that once had a bee or hornet atop of it was rumored to be John D. Rockefeller being “stung” for funds for the University of Chicago. Officials there were supposedly so upset by the story, they demanded all the bees be chiseled off. Dreiser said there’s no proof of the Rockefeller connection, but the bees have disappeared.
Faces of fauns and satyrs, mythical creatures who were half-man, half-goat, are found near the entrance, including two who look like Charles Tyson Yerkes, the Chicago millionaire who funded the observatory.
There are plenty of dolphins and scallop shells, popular designs of Greco-Roman Revival style and possibly a favorite of Cobb, who also designed the Fisheries Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Over the doorway is a reproduction of a Greek temple carving of Helios, sun god, and his chariot.
But some details have left even Dreiser, who’s been at Yerkes since 1980, puzzled—like the turtle poking its head from one side of the pillars. Or an image of a straight line pierced with two holes with curved lines on either side.
After more than 100 years, some of the decorations are weathered and worn. A few have been restored, but the process is expensive. Still, many retain amazing detail.
There are Arabesque designs, Greek theater masks, sleigh bells, cornucopias full of fruit, flowers and even backward swastika images, although Dreiser points out the symbol was used by dozens of cultures, from Native American to Indian, and predates any links to Nazism.
T-squares, right angles and other Masonic symbols can also be found, which trigger interest among visitors, but Dreiser dispels any “Da Vinci Code” connections.
“Ever since Dan Brown’s books of fiction came out, people think there are Masonic conspiracies everywhere,” he said.
The building abounds with creatures: chameleons, owls with outstretched wings, dwarves, writhing dragons and sea monsters with parrot-heads and snake tails. Winged and crowned lions stand guard, holding shields in their paws.
Other creatures weren’t so mythical. Visitors who look closely at the limestone steps leading to the front door of Yerkes will see remains of very large fossilized worms.
Even after more than 25 years, Dreiser sometimes spots a detail he’s never noticed before.
“It is,” he said, “a wonderful building.”
Yerkes Observatory, 373 W. Geneva St., Williams Bay, is open for public tours every Saturday throughout the year, except on Dec. 25 and Jan. 1 Programs begin at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and noon, and last about 45 minutes. Tours are free, but a suggested donation of $5 person is appreciated. For more information, call (262) 245-5555.