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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 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 was in the Spanish Colonial Revival style, an idealized reflection of 18th century mission architecture practically obligatory for Southern California public buildings in the 1920s and ’30s. It might have looked something like the Santa Barbara Courthouse, in white adobe with the planetarium and telescope domes covered in red tiles.
But after the Long Beach earthquake in March 1933, the panel scrapped 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 the 1930s.
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 Herschel.
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 television series.
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 star 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 it got a new name: 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. Officials explained that the $8 charge was merely an optional convenience fee that defrayed the costs of operating the buses. Anyone could still visit for free, with no reservation required, by forgoing that convenience and hiking to the Observatory on one of several park trails.
The sharpest 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 serves as the master of (scripted) ceremonies. And the $7 million Zeiss projector makes only a three-minute cameo appearance in a presentation that showcases 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 fulfills 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 Twitter, emoji, and movies 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. (As of April 2017, Centered in the Universe is still running. They’ve also added two other shows I haven’t seen.)
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.
Despite those concerns, 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 reserved remote parking requirement was discontinued in November 2007, allowing visitors to drive directly to the Observatory at any time it’s open— at least in theory. But the limited parking near the Observatory created terrible congestion, which officials finally attempted to mitigate in 2016 with a $4 hourly parking fee. Visitors able to enjoy an uphill hike can still park for free in lots elsewhere in Griffith Park, the nearest of which is a mile (1.6km) away from the Observatory.
For visitors unable or unwilling to either hike or pay for hourly parking, officials
expanded a weekend
shuttle bus between the Vermont/Sunset MetroRail Red Line station and
the Observatory to a daily schedule. Unfortunately, there is no parking anywhere near
that station. I don’t know whether that’s a stupid oversight or a deliberate
strategy to promote MetroRail ridership. Either way, you can check the the
MTA Web site to find
the most convenient MetroRail station that does have parking. You might also try parking
in the lot for the Greek Theatre within Griffith Park, which is near a stop on the
shuttle bus route.
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.
When it reopened, 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
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 trails.