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Recreating Olmsted Gardens at Yerkes Observatory


July 27, 2021

Lake Geneva Garden Club

According to a local legend, Albert Einstein asked to see just two places in the United States during his first visit in 1921. One was Niagara Falls and the other was the Yerkes Observatory, the birthplace of modern astrophysics. The 1897 Yerkes Observatory is a majestic, iconic building with a rich history of science discovery and education on the shores of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. In 2018, the University of Chicago transferred ownership of the observatory to the Yerkes Future Foundation (YFF). Part of the foundation’s mission is to preserve not only the historically significant buildings, but also to authentically recreate the forty eight acres of Olmsted-designed grounds surrounding them. Members of the Lake Geneva Garden Club (LGGC) have been directly involved with these landscaping plans.

LGGC members have taken an inventory of the entire forty eight acres, measuring and tagging trees. In June, they planted three different rain gardens to serve as a buffer to run-off into the lake. A grove of chestnut trees has already been planted by volunteers and invasive buckthorn has been removed to open up the hillside and provide views of the lake. A 6,000 square foot “Welcome Garden” and pollinator garden are also being planned. In a research collaboration with the Morton Arboretum, the club has replanted twenty elm trees (original to the Olmsted plan) with a new Dutch elm disease-resistant variety. 

In celebration of Frederick Law Olmsted’s 200th birthday, the observatory has become a partner of the Olmsted 200 campaign and is planning special celebratory events there. An “Olmsted room” in the dome will overlook the ground’s ellipse and prairie and will include framed copies of the original landscape plans and Olmsted quotes. Plant materials used on the grounds will also be identified.


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