The Griffith Observatory has enraptured Los Angeles since the day it opened 85 years ago
On May 14, 1935, Los Angeles was abuzz. For months, motorists on Los Feliz Boulevard had “glanced up at the pile of masonry that loomed larger and larger, day by day” on the slope of Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park and wondered when it would be finished. So great was the curiosity surrounding the domed structure, designed by John C. Austin and Frederick M. Ashley and compared by one Los Angeles Times journalist to “the magic work of a genie,” that gates were constructed to keep away looky-loos who had been “interfering with the workmen” preparing the grounds for the opening on the fourteenth.
That night, a crowd of 500 of the city’s elite, glittering like a “presidential ball,” watched as Mayor Frank L. Shaw accepted the building from the Griffith Estate on behalf of the city. “This magnificent structure, not only will be of value to scientists, but its greatest attraction will be to the masses of other citizens who will now have an opportunity to see how the universe is constituted.”
Today, in the words of restoration specialist Brenda Levin, who led the building’s restoration and expansion from 2002 through 2006 with architect Stephen Johnson, Griffith Observatory is “probably the most recognizable and beloved building in Los Angeles.”
The opening of Griffith Observatory was the long-delayed triumph of a dead man. “Colonel” Griffith J. Griffith was a brilliant businessman and philanthropist, but he is perhaps best known for the attempted murder of his wife.
Griffith’s path to the observatory began in 1896, when he donated 3,015 acres of the old Rancho Los Feliz to the city of Los Angeles to be used as a public park. “A place of rest and relaxation for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people.”
The plain people, as well as the city’s elite, felt their admiration for Griffith turn to horror in 1903, when, drunk, he told his wife to kneel down and pray, and then shot her in the face. After his release from prison, Griffith remained an enormously wealthy man but had become a social pariah.
In 1912, inspired by a look into the heavens through the powerful telescope at the nearby Mount Wilson, Griffith became determined to build his own public observatory in Griffith Park. According to John Anson Ford, Griffith exclaimed, “Man’s sense of values ought to be revised. If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would revolutionize the world!”
He offered the city $100,000 to build an observatory, but Griffith’s reputation was such that the city was not interested in taking more of his charity—at least not while he was alive. When Griffith realized this, he decided to leave a bequest, eventually totaling $750,000, for the construction of a free “Hall of Science” and Observatory atop the peak of Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park. He died in 1919.
In 1930, after many delays due to the complications of establishing the Griffith Trust, the city began a conversation with the trust about accepting the Observatory as a gift. By 1930, the “bug eyed Planetarium,” which projected “the stars, sun, moon and other planets in miniature as they are seen in the heavens,” had been invented in Germany. This made a Los Angeles observatory with a planetarium (only the third in America, behind Chicago and Philadelphia) an even more exciting proposition. In January 1931, the city and Griffith Trust hammered out the contract, with the Trust and the Parks Commission sharing responsibility for the project.
The astronomer Russell Porter began to draw architectural plans for a domed observatory with extraordinary rooftop views, which greatly influenced both the final original design and the recent restoration.
“We were fortunate to have available the original construction documents… particularly those of Russell Porter, who not only designed the astronomical instruments but significantly influenced the design of the building,” says Levin. “The elegance of the design comes in part from the fact that the architecture reflects the purpose of the building. You do not need to enter the building to know it is an Observatory, housing a planetarium.”
In June 1931, the respected architects John C. Austin (designer of LA City Hall, Shrine Auditorium, and St. Vincent Hospital) and Frederick Ashley (designer of LA Public Library Memorial Branch and Monrovia High School) were hired as the official architects of the project, and they kept Porter as a consultant. A new lower site, just west of the recently built Greek Theater, was chosen after the peak of Mt. Hollywood was determined to be an unsuitable, costly, and undemocratic choice, with very little parking and very high construction costs.
The Depression probably made the construction of Griffith Observatory possible. Building materials and labor were cheap and plentiful, so Austin and Ashley assured “that in every possible instance, they [would] specify materials obtainable in Los Angeles or the vicinity, thus aiding local industry and employment.” On July 20, 1933, Austin, Mayor Frank Porter, Parks Commissioner Mabel Socha, and other leaders participated in groundbreaking ceremonies.
The spirit of public involvement in this very public project could be felt everywhere. The government-funded Public Works of Art program hired six sculptors (including George Stanley, who designed the “Oscar”). Each sculptor designed an astronomer for the 40-foot tall, hexagonal Astronomers Monument that stands in front of the Observatory. The muralist Hugo Ballin led a team of assistants in painting murals for the grand foyer, depicting the history of astrology and the mythical heavens.
The building’s design was a mishmash of grand and monument styles, compared by one journalist to a “Roman temple, Moorish mosque or mausoleum,” but the main materials were inexpensive concrete and steel, although the domes were to be a brilliant copper. Construction began at a breakneck speed, with hundreds of men employed at the site (including “wandering boys” from a local transient youth camp). Installations for the Hall of Science were designed by Dr. Edward Kurth of the California Institute of Technology.
A machine shop, with thousands of dollars worth of “intricate equipment,” was set up in the basement to manufacture and produce exhibits to explain earthquakes, storms, sound, and light. A powerful telescope was placed on the roof.
Paul Lange, who had already installed more than 20 planetariums, was brought from Europe to oversee the installation of the German-made Zeiss planetarium. He requested that the 442 seats in the planetarium theater be dark, so they would not detract from the synthetic sky, which would be projected onto a perfect semicircle-shaped dome. Remarkably, the cost of the construction and equipment was only $400,000.
The LA Times reported that at the gala opening “the crowd gasped as stars began to appear in the heavens, then the sun arose, and swung across on its orbit, followed later by the moon with all the stars and planets completing their circuit of the heavens.”
The Observatory also enraptured the “plain” people Griffith so wanted to please. It was reported that 17,739 people crowded the halls of the Observatory the first week it was open. The thrice daily, 25-cent planetarium shows were filled to capacity, and the visitors came from “every class imaginable.” More than 48,000 people visited the Observatory between June 16 and June 30, 1935. The parking lot and buses bustling to and from the Observatory were consistently full.
The Observatory’s popularity only increased in the decades that followed, with half a million annual visitors in 1950, increasing to two million in the 1990s. By the early 2000s, the building was sorely in need of a renovation. In the words of Levin, the building and its exhibits had simply “been loved to death.”
Under the leadership of Edwin Krupp, the Observatory’s beloved longtime director, the $93 million transformation of the Observatory began. Design meetings were held in the basement of the building, in a bunker-like storage space carved from bedrock. The city of Los Angeles and Friends of the Observatory set about raising the needed funds.
Levin and Stephen Johnson were hired to oversee the restoration. Their credentials were impressive: Levin’s other restoration projects have included the James Oviatt Building, the Fine Arts Building, and the Wiltern Theater; Johnson, of Pfeiffer Partners Inc., oversaw the overhaul of the Central Library and Union Station. Together, as Levin explains, they came up with a unique plan for the 70-year-old structure:
Our charge from the Observatory and the Department of Recreation and Parks was to restore the Observatory, maintain its historic status and find 40,000 square feet of new space to expand the exhibit program seamlessly melding the existing and new. Because the Observatory is a building that is viewed from all four sides, North, south, east and west, with almost equal prominence, it was clear to both Stephen and me that an addition to the building would fundamentally change the character of the architectural icon. The aha moment came with the decision to add the additional square footage under the front lawn thereby creating the opportunity to develop an expanded exhibit space dedicated to the depths of space, or post Hubbell exploration.
When the Observatory reopened in 2006, it boasted 60 new exhibits, the 200-seat Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater, the ultra-modern below-ground Gunther Depths of Space exhibition space, and a new planetarium.
The Observatory is temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but a visit is typically a communal affair, with visitors from all over the world cramming the exhibition halls and gasping at the breathtaking views. Angelenos use the gleaming white structure as a kind of compass, knowing where they are in the city based on the position of the Observatory in the horizon above. It is consistently filled with school children and science lovers, hikers, and architecture buffs. “It was envisioned as and remains a place for everyone,” Levin says.