Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

The Observatory in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, allows visitors and tourists to see the heavens as well as spectacular views of the city.

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Griffith Observatory

In 1882, a wealthy mine-owner named Griffith J Griffith decided to get into the real estate business, and purchased a number of housing developments in Los Angeles near the Santa Monica Mountains. He also opened up a large ostrich ranch—the feathers were being used in ladies’ hats and were very valuable. Griffith did well, became a well-respected citizen, and donated 3,000 acres of his property to the city as a public park.

Then in 1903, during a dispute, Griffith shot and wounded his wife, and spent the next several years in jail. When he got out, his social reputation was in ruins. To try to rehabilitate it, he attempted to make a further land donation to the city for the purpose of building a public amphitheater and astronomical observatory, but the Los Angeles mayor didn’t want anything to do with him, and the gift was refused.

Nine years later Griffith tried again, and this time was able to grant 100 acres for use in “aviation”. The city built an airport there, which in addition to serving as a general aviation hub was used by aviation pioneer Glenn Martin as a test site. Eventually the California Air National Guard took over the field, until it was closed in 1939. (Today, the former site of the Griffith Park Aerodrome is occupied by the Los Angeles Zoo.)

It wasn’t until after Griffith died in 1919 that city officials began to work on his original vision. Plans were drawn up for a public amphitheater and for an observatory/planetarium. The Greek Theater opened in 1930, and the Griffith Observatory was finished in 1935. During the Great Depression the Civilian Conservation Corps established a camp inside the park in order to do landscaping work in the area. After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Federal Government ordered the rounding up of all Japanese citizens and their confinement in “relocation centers”: the CCC site in Griffith Park was pressed into use as a temporary holding center for Japanese deportees on their way to the internment camps. This camp was later expanded into a processing center for POWs captured in Europe and the Pacific, then was used as a research enter for photo reconnaissance and camouflage experiments (which recruited a number of technical experts from nearby Hollywood).

Over the years Griffith Park continued to grow, as private owners donated more land and the city purchased additional blocks. Today, at over 4000 acres, it is one of the largest city-owned public parks in the US. With its proximity to Hollywood, it has become famous as a location for filming movie exteriors, and many dozens of TV shows and movies were shot on locations inside the park.

The Griffith Observatory itself is now a popular tourist destination. Although Griffith wanted to fund serious scientific research, he also hoped that by placing his observatory right next to the city he could make astronomy more accessible to people. He succeeded, but didn’t live to see the finished product—construction of the observatory did not begin until 1933, as a Works Project Administration venture. It was only the third astronomical observatory to open in the US.

The observatory opened with a 12-inch Zeiss refracting telescope. In 1955 this was accompanied by a 9.5-inch Zeiss. Both were used for astronomical observations, but their primary goal was public accessibility. It has been said that more people have looked through the Griffith telescopes than any other telescope in the world. The Observatory also has three solar telescopes which project real-time images of the sun for public viewing.

The observatory also opened with a planetarium. During World War II, this was used to train US pilots and navigators in celestial navigation, and in the 1960s it was used to train NASA astronauts. Today the planetarium presents films and shows for the public.

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5 thoughts on “Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles”

  1. Fascinating stuff. We used to take walks in Griffith Park, but I knew little of the history (and nothing about the airfield). The abandoned original zoo site is kind of creepy.

    According to IMDB, the Observatory has been used as a film or TV location at least 140 times. This is probably my favorite:

  2. My fiance has a brother in LA, and when we go out to visit him, I would like to go to Griffith Park. I would especially like to see the observatory. Thanks for the history lesson.

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