The Griffith Observatory: The Story of an L.A. Icon

Griffith Observatory | Photo by Justin Donais, © Friends Of The Observatory

The Griffith Observatory is one of L.A.’s greatest cultural attractions, offering spectacular views from the Pacific Ocean to Downtown L.A. from its perch on Mt. Hollywood in Griffith Park. The observatory and accompanying exhibits were opened to the public on May 14, 1935. In its first five days of operation, the observatory welcomed more than 13,000 visitors. Today, the Griffith Observatory is renowned as a national leader in public astronomy, and a beloved gathering place for visitors and Angelenos alike.

The Griffith Observatory's grounds, exhibits, and telescopes are open and free to the public each day the building is open. The observatory also offers programs, special events, and public “star parties.” Visitors may drive directly to the Griffith Observatory and park for free in its parking lot or on adjacent roads.

Portrait of Col. Griffith J.Griffith, © Griffith Observatory

The story of the Griffith Observatory begins with Colonel Griffith J. Griffith, who donated 3,015 acres of land surrounding the observatory to the City of Los Angeles in December 1896. In his will, Griffith donated funds to build an observatory, exhibit hall, and planetarium on the donated land. His goal was to make astronomy accessible to the public.

Detail of the final rendering of Griffith Observatory, for the architecture firm of John C. Austin and Frederick Ashley | Photo © Griffith Observatory

Some of the leading astronomers and scientists of the day were selected as the core team to plan the construction of the Griffith Observatory. George Ellery Hale, who had overseen the creation of telescopes at Yerkes, Mount Wilson, and Palomar Observatories, steered the overall design. Caltech physicist Edward Kurth drew up the preliminary plans and later guided the construction of the building. Architects John C. Austin and Frederick M. Ashley were selected to oversee the final plans for the new observatory building. Austin and Ashley hired Kurth to direct the project with Russell W. Porter, the "Patron Saint" of the amateur telescope-making movement, as consultant.

Lower level of the Griffith Observatory | Photo by Justin Donais, © Friends Of The Observatory

In 2002, the observatory closed for a $93 million renovation and a major expansion of exhibit space. It reopened to the public in November 2006. The existing Art Deco style building was restored and the aging planetarium dome was replaced. The building was expanded underground, with a lower level that features completely new exhibits, a café, gift shop, and the new Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theatre. The Café at the End of the Universe, an homage to Douglas Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe, is one of many cafés run by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck.

Each of the Griffith Observatory's major exhibit areas focuses on a unique aspect of observation. They include: Wilder Hall of the Eye, Ahmanson Hall of the Sky, W.M. Keck Foundation Central Rotunda, Cosmic Connection, Gunther Depths of Space, Edge of Space Mezzanine, and Exterior Exhibits.

Samuel Oschin Planetarium

Samuel Oschin Planetarium | Photo by Justin Donais, © Friends Of The Observatory

The Samuel Oschin Planetarium features an array of cutting edge technologies that present world-class scientific educational programming for audiences of all ages. At 75 feet, the seamless, perforated aluminum dome is one of the largest planetarium domes in the world. As part of the observatory’s renovation, the planetarium’s vintage 1964 Zeiss Mark IV star projector was replaced with a state-of-the-art Zeiss Mark IX Universarium. The theatre’s infamous wooden headrests were replaced by custom-designed, reclining seats.Visitors to the 300-seat planetarium can enjoy an experience that’s light years ahead of most planetarium shows. From the moment they pass through the historic bronze and leather doors, they are immersed in an environment carefully designed to create an authentic night sky and present high quality experiences that are not only awe-inspiring but thought provoking as well. For more info about current shows, showtimes and ticket prices, visit griffithobservatory.org/psoplanet.html.

Zeiss Telescope

Zeiss Telescope | Photo by Griffith Observatory Astronomical Observer Anthony Cook, © Griffith Observatory

Since the observatory’s opening in 1935, millions of visitors have looked through the 12-inch Zeiss refracting telescope that’s located in the rooftop dome on the building's east end. Intended mainly for nighttime viewing by the general public, the telescope usually targets the Moon, planets, and the brightest objects in the Milky Way. The telescope serves up to 600 visitors per night and is operated by one of the observatory's Telescope Demonstrators, who chooses the objects of observation, explains what is being viewed, and answers questions. The telescope is a popular public destination during celestial special events - the Griffith Observatory website notes that it’s “likely that more people viewed Halley's Comet and the recent brilliant comets Hyakutake and Hale-Bopp through this telescope than any other in the world.”

Hall of the Eye

Hall of the Eye | Photo by Justin Donais, © Friends Of The Observatory

Located on the observatory’s main level, the Hall of the Eye illustrates the nature and progress of human observation of the sky and the tools used for that exploration. One of the hall’s highlights is a Tesla coil, built in 1910 by Earle Ovington and donated to the Griffith Observatory a year after his death in 1936. The machine was repaired with the help of Kenneth Strickfaden, who designed electrical special effects for Frankenstein (1931) and The Wizard of Oz (1939) among many other movies.

Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon

Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon | Photo by Justin Donais, © Friends Of The Observatory

The Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon is a 200-seat multi-media theatre that provides a modern venue for lectures, demonstrations, films, museum guide talks, and a variety of other activities. The Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon is also an important venue for the observatory's school programs. The theatre uses a stadium-style seating configuration, which enables each audience member to feel close to the presenter.

The Big Picture

The Big Picture telescopes | Photo by Justin Donais, © Friends Of The Observatory

The Big Picture is one of the highlights of the Gunther Depths of Space exhibit hall, located on the lower level. The Big Picture is the largest astronomically accurate image ever constructed, measuring 152 feet long by 20 feet high. The highly detailed image depicts the core of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies and contains nearly a million faint galaxies, about half a million stars in our own galaxy (the Milky Way), a thousand distant quasars, a thousand asteroids in our own Solar System, and at least one comet. Visitors can explore The Big Picture from within arm's reach or through telescopes placed 60 feet away.

Astronomers Monument

Astronomers Monument | Photo courtesy of Non Paratus, Flickr

Visitors don't even need to enter the Griffith Observatory to become observers. The exterior of the building offers a mix of exhibits and features that draw the eye and fuel the imagination, including the Solar System Lawn Model, Sunset and Moonset Radial Lines, and a rooftop observation deck. When visitors arrive at the Griffith Observatory, they are greeted by the Astronomers Monument, a concrete outdoor sculpture on the front lawn that pays tribute to six of the greatest astronomers of all time: Hipparchus, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and Herschel.

Gottlieb Transit Corridor

Gottlieb Transit Corridor | Photo courtesy Alma Recinto, Flickr

The Robert J. and Suzanne Gottlieb Transit Corridor is a monumental 150-foot-long, 10-foot-wide glass-walled passageway that immerses visitors in the motions of the Sun, Moon, and stars across the sky and demonstrates how these motions are linked with time and the calendar. The Gottlieb Transit Corridor is an accurate outdoor public astronomical instrument that’s built below-grade onto the west side of the observatory. Its form is similar to instruments from ancient temples and medieval churches, but updated for the 21st century. Like the observatory's other public observing instruments, the Gottlieb Transit Corridor transforms visitors into astronomical observers and immerses them in the meaning of those observations.

James Dean Bust

James Dean bust | Photo courtesy of Candice AKA Bessie Smith, Flickr

The Griffith Observatory has appeared in numerous TV shows and films, perhaps most famously in two major sequences of Rebel Without a Cause (1955), starring James Dean and Natalie Wood. A bust of James Dean is located at the west side of the observatory grounds. Other observatory film appearances include The Terminator (1984), The Rocketeer (1991), The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), and Transformers (2007).