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Griffith Park is a rarity in Los Angeles— 17 square kilometers of real
estate dedicated to public enjoyment. Located at the north end of the
Los Angeles “basin” on the slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains, much of
it is hilly wilderness undeveloped except for hiking trails. But it has
several developed attractions, the most famous of which is Griffith
Observatory. On a hilltop 346 meters high, the Observatory offers a view
of the stars at night, and of Los Angeles (and its layer of smog) during
the day. Also within the park are a zoo, museums, an equestrian center,
pony rides, a merry-go-round, and a Greek-style amphitheater.
After making his fortune in Mexican silver mining, “Colonel” Griffith J.
Griffith moved to Los Angeles in 1882 and turned to real estate
speculation. His first acquisition was a large chunk of Rancho Los
Feliz, formerly a land grant from the 18th century Spanish Colonial era.
Inspired by the urban parks he had seen in Europe, Griffith donated
1,220 hectares of this property to the City of Los Angeles in 1896 as “a
place of recreation and rest for the masses, a resort for the rank and
file, for the plain people.” Subsequent donations and acquisitions
expanded Griffith Park to its current size.
Looking through a large telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory just
north of Los Angeles inspired Griffith to dream of his own observatory.
In 1912 he offered the City $100,000 to build one in the park, but the
City Council rejected it on moral grounds. Griffith had served two years
in San Quentin Prison for the attempted murder of his wife in 1903.
Sanctimonious city officials denounced the offer as nothing more than a
bribe meant to salvage Griffith’s reputation.
That didn’t deter Griffith from establishing a trust fund and pursuing the observatory. By 1916 he realized he would not live to see his dream realized, so he put detailed provisions for it into his will. The terms specified a telescope and a museum with specific exhibits, including one on evolution. He also required free public access to all of it.
Griffith died in 1919. By 1930, the memory of his crime had faded enough
to allow the Griffith Trust to convene a panel of astronomers and
architects. Their initial exterior design for the Observatory reflected
the then-current “Spanish Colonial Revival” craze. It might have looked
something like the adobe Santa
Barbara Courthouse, with planetarium and telescope domes covered in
red tiles. The Long Beach earthquake in March 1933 made them scrap that
nearly-complete plan in favor of more substantial concrete. And rather
than looking backward to the 18th century, they chose an ultra-modern
look that emphasized the building’s purpose. That of course meant the
streamlined curves of “Art Moderne” and the geometric patterns of “Art
Deco,” styles synonymous with everything “modern” and “futuristic” in
Construction began in June 1933. The economic clouds of the Depression
held a silver lining for the Griffith Observatory. The contractors could
get high quality construction materials at bargain prices, along with
ready supply of federally-subsidized highly skilled labor. Another
benefit was the Astronomers Monument, a 12-meter obelisk in front of the
Observatory. As part of a federal Works Progress Administration program
that employed artists to beautify public works projects and buildings,
six sculptors depicted the influential astronomers Hipparchus, Nicholas
Copernicus, Galileo, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, and William
The Observatory opened on 14 May 1935. For nearly 67 years, anyone
could view the night sky through a 30-centimeter refracting telescope,
and visit the exhibits in the Hall of Science. Inside the planetarium
dome— 23 meters across, one of the largest in the world— a real live
astronomer answered questions and used a Zeiss star projector to reveal
a night sky that, for most Los Angeles residents, was too often
obscured by smog and light pollution. In addition to enlightening the
general public, the planetarium was a tool for celestial navigation
training, first for World War II pilots and later for astronauts. The
Observatory and its grounds have also figured prominently in movies and
The Observatory closed for an overhaul in January 2002. The project took
just under six years and cost $93 million (a combination of private
funding and a bond issue). Excavating a new basement expanded the
original 2,500 square meters of exhibit space to 3,700 square meters.
The planetarium was completely gutted; it got a new projection surface,
state-of-the-art digital laser projection and sound systems, and a new
Zeiss projector. Best of all, the decrepit 1964-vintage seats with their
hard wood headrests and protruding springs were replaced with very
comfortable new ones. The outside of the dome got new copper sheathing.
And the whole thing was renamed the Samuel Oschin (“ocean”)
Planetarium after the late real estate developer whose family foundation
provided a significant portion of the private funding. Other parts of the
Observatory also got renamed for various donors. Despite the interior
modifications, the original art deco exterior remained intact in all its
details, after cleaning and some restoration work.
The Observatory reopened in November 2006 to fanfare and controversy. To
manage the expected crowds during the first year, most visitors had to
park near the zoo and ride a shuttle bus to the Observatory. Tickets for
the bus required an advance reservation and cost $8. Critics questioned
whether this scheme violated the terms of Griffith’s bequest, which
required free public access to the Observatory. Officially, the $8 fee
was only to defray the costs of operating the buses. Anyone who hiked to
the Observatory on one of several park trails could get in for free,
with no reservation required.
The real critical barbs were directed at the new planetarium show,
Centered in the Universe. Instead of a real live astronomer
answering audience questions, an actor carrying a glowing plastic orb
served as the master of (scripted) ceremonies. And the $7 million Zeiss
projector made only a three-minute cameo appearance in a presentation
that showcased the wonders of Hollywooden computer-generated “immersive”
animation. Critics accused Observatory officials of “dumbing down” the
planetarium experience, and questioned whether the slight content that
skims over historical episodes fulfilled Griffith’s mandate to educate
and inspire the public about astronomy and science.
I walked into the Samuel Oschin Planetarium with no expectations beyond
a fond recollection of visits as a kid in the 1960s. I knew nothing about the
show, and was unaware of the controversy until I did the research for
this Web page. That said, I found Centered in the Universe
disappointing. It seemed perfectly tailored for a Ritalin-saturated
audience accustomed to music videos, television commercials, instant
messaging, and movies with plots that revolve around special effects.
Regrettably, the producers were probably correct in assuming that few
people today would appreciate the planetarium shows I remember, in which
an enthusiastic knowledgeable astronomer demonstrated the wonders of the
night sky using nothing more elaborate than a lighted pointer.
More troubling was the apparent lack of maintenance throughout the facility when I visited, 11 months after the reopening. On the way out of the planetarium, I asked one of the operators about a white streak that marred the high-tech digital video projection. He glowered at me and said it was a “defect in the projector system.” A video presentation featuring Star Trek’s Leonard Nimoy describing the history of the Observatory and the renovation project was canceled because the projector was broken. (I later found complaints from bloggers about focus problems with that projector.) Various museum exhibits had broken switches or burned-out lights.
Aside from those quibbles, Griffith Observatory is a Los Angeles
landmark that is well worth a trip. Go in the late afternoon to see the
sun paint the Observatory’s white concrete gold before setting into the
smog layer over the Los Angeles basin. A weekday visit would be best,
preferably in the spring or autumn. The shuttle buses were discontinued
in November 2007, so now you can drive directly to the Observatory at
any time it’s open. But parking on the hilltop is very limited. On a
summer weekend you’ll likely have to park far down the steeply winding
road leading to the Observatory, and face a lengthy hike up and back. An
alternative is the “Weekend Observatory Shuttle” from the Vermont/Sunset
MetroRail Red Line station. (The station does not have a parking lot.
MTA Web site to find
one that does. I don’t know whether this represents a clever ploy
that encourages people to give MetroRail a try, or merely typical
In the late 1940s a group of rail enthusiasts decided that children
would enjoy “playing engineer” in a kind of petting zoo for trains. Kids
apparently found that immensely appealing in the days before airlines
supplanted passenger trains. Griffith Park already had a miniature
railroad, so a collection of real trains would complement it well. The
timing was perfect. Railroads all over the country were then in the
process of junking their old steam engines in favor of modern diesel
locomotives. So the Recreation and Parks Department had no difficulty
getting a wide range of donations. Travel Town first opened in 1952. The
collection continued to expand, requiring a reorganization in 1965.
By the 1980s, Travel Town’s haphazard assemblage had become a
deteriorating junkyard that included cars, airplanes, fire engines, and
construction equipment. Rather than closing down a popular children’s
attraction that was rapidly becoming unsafe, park officials devised a
master plan in 1987 to transform Travel Town. It would become an
interactive museum that tells the story of railroads in the West from
1880 to the 1930s. Children would still be able to play on the trains,
but the pruned and restored collection would acquire a unified
educational dimension. The transformation was successful. The Travel
Town Museum became a popular venue for family picnics and birthday
parties, whose participants may not realize they’re being “educated.”
The fully restored, brightly painted locomotives and train cars also
appeal to adult rail fans and photographers.
Fern Dell is a hidden oasis at Griffith Park’s southwestern corner. A
trail meanders along a stream with mossy rocks and numerous small
waterfalls (a pumping system ensures a continuous flow of water
throughout the year). Shaded from the sun by California sycamores, over
fifty species of fern grow alongside assorted tropical plants and
flowers. This “Cultural-Historical Landmark” is a quiet place for
reflection or a picnic. If you’re more athletically inclined, the trail
through Fern Dell continues on to the Observatory via two different