“What would you like to do for Mother’s Day?” my LA-based son was asking over the phone last week. Our entire family had been together in San Diego in April, which was the best Mother’s Day I could have asked for – never mind that it wasn’t the exact date to celebrate. This chance to get together with Andrew on the officially designated weekend would be the proverbial icing on the Mother’s Day cake.
In my endless quest to visit places where I’ve never been, I decided on Griffith Observatory, the stunning Art Deco planetarium and astronomy museum that looks out over Los Angeles from its hilltop perch in Griffith Park. With more than 4,000 acres of trails and attractions including the Greek Theatre and LA Zoo, Griffith Park lays claim to being the “largest municipal park with urban wilderness area in the United States.” I had only explored a tiny corner of the place hiking to the Hollywood Sign last year. Clearly, I had some sight-seeing catching up to do!
It’s a lovely drive through Griffith Park, up winding hills, past the Bird Sanctuary, through an old tunnel carved into a hillside. The observatory doesn’t open until 10 am, but we arrive a half-hour early, hoping to snag a parking spot near the upper lot as well as having time to explore the grounds without too much of a crowd. It turns out to be a wise decision on both counts.
A Little Griffith Observatory History
Griffith Observatory is named for Colonel Griffith J. Griffith, a Welsh immigrant who amassed a personal fortune in Southern California real estate and Mexican silver mines. In 1882, Griffith purchased a portion of a Spanish land grant called Rancho Los Feliz – the area that is now Griffith Park – and on December 16, 1896, he donated 3,015 acres to the City of Los Angeles to be used as a public park. He called it a Christmas gift to the people of Los Angeles, saying:
“It must be made a place of recreation and rest for the plain people…a safety valve (from urban pressures), open space – rustic and available to all.”
~Friends of Griffith Park, Keepers of the Flame
In his 1916 will, Griffith set up a trust fund that was designated for constructing his two dreams for the park. He died in 1919, but both of his projects were carried out. The Greek Theatre opened in 1930, and Griffith Observatory was completed in 1935.
Griffith Observatory Exterior & Grounds
The observatory has an elegant, important feel, as if it has been part of the landscape much longer than its 1935 origins. Designed in the Art Deco architectural style, the 27,000-square-foot observatory also features Greek and Beaux-Art touches, including a Greek key pattern that runs along an upper area of the structure.
Near the front entrance, a 35-foot-high concrete sculpture called the Astronomers Monument pays tribute to six of the world’s most renowned astronomers from 126 B.C. to 1822. Full-length sculptures of Hipparchus, Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton and William Herschel form a ring around the base of the sculpture. According to the Griffith Observatory website, Albert Einstein was considered but not included because the planners felt it would be “inappropriate to feature someone who was still alive” at the time of construction.
The monument is topped with an astronomical instrument called an armillary sphere, which was used by astronomers to determine celestial position before the telescope was invented. And a few feet away sits another astronomical instrument from another time – a sundial.
Hooray for Hollywood
Griffith Observatory has served as a filming location for a host of Hollywood movies, including La La Land, The Terminator and The Rocketeer. But it is the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause that is immortalized at the observatory, with a sculpture of the film’s star James Dean anchored prominently along the west side, toward the Hollywood Sign. The landmark film was the first time a planetarium theater was used in a film.
Griffith Observatory Interior & Exhibits
The first thing that greets you inside the observatory is the beautiful rotunda decorated with an enchanting ceiling mural. Created by muralist Hugo Ballin in 1934, the palette of soft swirling blues and sunny splashes of yellow paints a story of celestial mythology that features Atlas, the four winds, the planets as gods and the twelve zodiac constellations. Just below, eight wall murals also by Ballin depict stories of science and engineering throughout history. Bright color tones and symbolism create scenes that give an ethereal effect as they dance around the space.
Suspended from the center of the rotunda is the observatory’s Foucault Pendulum, a 240-pound bronze ball that sways from a 40-foot-long cable in a constant direction while the Earth turns beneath it. Named after French physicist Léon Foucault, the pendulum was introduced in 1851 as a way to demonstrate the Earth’s rotation.
Exhibit halls featuring colorful and sometimes interactive displays about the world of astronomy lie just beyond the rotunda. The star of the show is clearly the Tesla Coil, whose electrical discharges are demonstrated at various times throughout the day. The observatory’s planetarium theater, billed as “the finest planetarium in the world,” features rotating shows at set times. There is a fee to enter the planetarium, but the rest of the observatory is free of charge.
Up on the Roof
Back outside, we head up a curved staircase that leads to what may be one of the best viewing spots in Los Angeles. The observatory’s rooftop is designed with a wrap-around walkway that connects terraces on the east and west sides of the building, offering inspiring vistas even on a hazy morning.
The rooftop is also home to the observatory’s original Zeiss telescope. According to its website, over seven million people have viewed the sky through this telescope since 1935 – more than any other telescope in the world. We wait in line outside the dome to peek through the window where the telescope is housed. If we want to look through the telescope itself, we will need to return in the evening between 7:00 and 9:30.
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There is a portrait of Griffith J. Griffith inside the observatory that hangs next to a framed proclamation of the City of Los Angeles accepting his gift of Griffith Park. The nameplate below describes him as a “philanthropist and visionary.” For a moment, I wondered what had inspired him to build an observatory for the people of his city. My question was quickly answered when I read the quote above his portrait:
“If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would change the world!”
~Griffith J. Griffith