Griffith Observatory

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Griffith Observatory
Griffith observatory.jpg
Griffith Observatory, September 2007
Griffith Observatory is located in Los Angeles
Griffith Observatory
Location within Los Angeles
General information
Architectural style Art Deco
Location Los Feliz, Los Angeles, California, United States
Coordinates 34°07′07″N 118°18′01″W / 34.11856°N 118.30037°W / 34.11856; -118.30037Coordinates: 34°07′07″N 118°18′01″W / 34.11856°N 118.30037°W / 34.11856; -118.30037
Construction started June 20, 1933 (1933-06-20)
Client Griffith Trust
Design and construction
Architect John C. Austin
Frederick M. Ashley
Designated: November 17, 1976
Reference No. 168

Griffith Observatory is a facility in Los Angeles, California sitting on the south-facing slope of Mount Hollywood in Los Angeles' Griffith Park. It commands a view of the Los Angeles Basin, including Downtown Los Angeles to the southeast, Hollywood to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the southwest. The observatory is a popular tourist attraction with an extensive array of space and science-related displays.

View from a trail in Griffith Park from the south, looking north.

3,015 acres (12.20 km2) of land surrounding the observatory was donated to the City of Los Angeles by Colonel Griffith J. Griffith on December 16, 1896.[1] In his will Griffith donated funds to build an observatory, exhibit hall, and planetarium on the donated land. Griffith's objective was to make astronomy accessible by the public, as opposed to the prevailing idea that observatories should be located on remote mountaintops and restricted to scientists.[2]

Griffith drafted detailed specifications for the observatory. In drafting the plans, he consulted with Walter Adams, the future director of Mount Wilson Observatory, and George Ellery Hale, who founded (with Andrew Carnegie) the first astrophysical telescope in Los Angeles.[2]

As a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project,[3] construction began on June 20, 1933, using a design developed by architect John C. Austin based on preliminary sketches by Russell W. Porter.[1] The observatory and accompanying exhibits were opened to the public on May 14, 1935. In its first five days of operation the observatory logged more than 13,000 visitors. Dinsmore Alter was the museum's director during its first years; today, Dr. Ed Krupp is the director of the Observatory.


The first exhibit visitors encountered in 1935 was the Foucault pendulum, which was designed to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth.[4] The exhibits also included a twelve-inch (305 mm) Zeiss refracting telescope in the east dome, a triple-beam coelostat (solar telescope) in the west dome, and a thirty-eight foot relief model of the moon's north polar region.

The Griffith Observatory after renovations, June 2007.

Col. Griffith requested that the observatory include a display on evolution which was accomplished with the Cosmochron exhibit which included a narration from Caltech Professor Chester Stock and an accompanying slide show. The evolution exhibit existed from 1937 to the mid-1960s.

Also included in the original design was a planetarium under the large central dome. The first shows covered topics including the Moon, worlds of the solar system, and eclipses.

During World War II the planetarium was used to train pilots in celestial navigation. The planetarium was again used for this purpose in the 1960s to train Apollo program astronauts for the first lunar missions.

The planetarium theater was renovated in 1964 and a Mark IV Zeiss projector was installed.

Renovation and expansion[edit]

A model showing the new underground exhibits

The observatory closed in 2002 for renovation and a major expansion of exhibit space. It reopened to the public on November 3, 2006, retaining its art deco exterior. The $93 million renovation, paid largely by a public bond issue, restored the building, as well as replaced the aging planetarium dome. The building was expanded underground, with completely new exhibits,[5] a café, gift shop, and the new Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater.[6] The Café at the End of the Universe, an homage to Restaurant at the End of the Universe, is one of the many cafés run by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck. One wall inside the building is covered with the largest astronomically accurate image ever constructed (152 feet long by 20 feet (6.1 m) high), called "The Big Picture" <>, depicting the Virgo Cluster of galaxies; visitors can explore the highly detailed image from within arm's reach or through telescopes 60 feet (18 m) away.[5] The 1964-vintage Zeiss Mark IV star projector was replaced with a Zeiss Mark IX Universarium.[7] The former planetarium projector is part of the underground exhibit on ways in which humanity has visualized the skies.

Side view of the Observatory after renovations in 2007

Since the observatory opened in 1935, admission has been free, in accordance with Griffith's will. Tickets for the show Centered in the Universe in the 290-seat Samuel Oschin Planetarium Theater are purchased separately at the box office within the observatory. Tickets are sold on a first-come, first-served basis.

Children under 5 are free, but are admitted to only the first planetarium show of the day. Only members of the observatory's support group, Friends Of The Observatory,[8] may reserve tickets for the planetarium show.

Centered in the Universe features a high-resolution immersive video projected by an innovative laser system developed by Evans and Sutherland Corporation, along with a short night sky simulation projected by the Zeiss Universarium. A team of animators worked more than two years to create the 30-minute program. Actors, holding a glowing orb, perform the presentation, under the direction of Chris Shelton.

A wildfire in the hills came dangerously close to the observatory on May 10, 2007.[9]

On May 25, 2008, the Observatory offered visitors live coverage of the Phoenix landing on Mars.[10]

The observatory is split up into six sections: The Wilder Hall of the Eye, the Ahmanson Hall of the Sky, the W.M. Keck Foundation Central Rotunda, the Cosmic Connection, the Gunther Depths of Space Hall, and the Edge of Space Mezzanine.

The Wilder Hall of the Eye, located in the east wing of the main level focuses on astronomical tools like telescopes and how they evolved over time so people can see further into space. Interactive features there include a Tesla coil and a "Camera Obscura", which uses mirrors and lenses to focus light onto a flat surface.

The Ahmanson Hall of the Sky, located in the west wing, focuses on objects that are normally found in the sky, like the Sun and Moon. The main centerpiece of this section is a large solar telescope projecting images of the Sun, using a series of mirrors called coelostats. Exhibits here include a periodic table of the elements, a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, and several alcoves showing exhibits about topics like day and night, the paths of the Sun and stars, the seasons, the phases of the Moon, tides, and eclipses. The W.M. Keck Foundation Central Rotunda features several Hugo Ballin murals on the ceiling and upper walls restored since 1934, a Foucault pendulum that demonstrates the Earth's rotation, and a small exhibit dedicated to Griffith J. Griffith, which the observatory is named after.

The Cosmic Connection is a 150 ft long hallway connecting the main building and the underground exhibition areas (see below) that depicts the history of the universe from the Big Bang to the present day using several astronomy related jewelry.

The Gunther Depths of Space Hall, is the lower level of the observatory. This hallway shows mostly how various celestial bodies have been revealed in full detail via modern astronomy. Exhibits include a lighted scale model of the Solar System's planets using the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater as the Sun, with facts about each planet located below the model planets (Earth's model instead has a small room lcontaining a large model Earth globe as well as one the older Zeiss planetarium projectors), holographic projections showing various astronomy related imagery, stations showing facts about the stars and galaxies, and "The Big Picture", a 150*20 foot mural showing the largest wide view of the universe taken by the Hubble Space Telescope yet.

The Edge of Space Mezzanine, just right above the Depths of Space Hall, focuses more on astronomy related topics that involve celestial bodies much closer to Earth, with exhibits including meteorite displays, an asteroid impact simulator, a cloud and spark chamber, and a large globe of the Moon, as with telescopes overlooking the lower level that point at the Big Picture.

Tesla coil[edit]

The Griffith Observatory's Tesla coil was built in 1910 by Earle Ovington.[11][12] Ovington, who would go on to fame as an aviator, ran a company which built high voltage generators for medical X-ray and electrotherapy devices. In public demonstrations of his generators, the spectacular displays drew crowds. Ovington designed the Observatory's coil to surpass a coil made by Elihu Thomson in 1893 which generated a 64 inch spark. (Nikola Tesla had produced much larger sparks in 1899.) The project caught the attention of an Edison Electric Illuminating Company official, who offered $1,000 if the coil were displayed at an upcoming electrical show in Madison Square Garden, with the stipulation that the machine would produce sparks not less than ten feet long.

The machine, dubbed the Million Volt Oscillator was installed in the band balcony overlooking the arena. At the top of each hour the lights in the main hall were shut off, and sparks would shoot from the copper ball atop the coil to a matching coil 122 inches away, or to a wand held by an assistant. The chief engineer of the General Electric Company estimated that the discharges were at least 1,300,000 volts.

Ovington, who died in 1936, gave the matching Tesla coils to his old electrotherapy colleague Frederick Finch Strong, who in 1937 donated them to the Griffith Observatory. By this time the machine was missing parts, so Observatory staffer Leon Hall restored it with the notable assistance of Kenneth Strickfaden who designed the special effects for Frankenstein (1931) among many other movies.

Visiting Griffith Observatory[edit]

Admission to the building and grounds of Griffith Observatory is free of charge. Planetarium shows at the Observatory are generally from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and cost a fee for admission. As of August 2013, the admission fee for Planetarium shows are $7 (adults) and $5 (Students). The Observatory is open six days a week. There is a small parking lot next to the Observatory. Additional parking is along the steep road leading up to the observatory. Parking is free of charge. On weekends, there is also a public bus that leaves from Sunset Vermont metro station (Red Line)- it costs 50 cents one way. More details can be found here [13]

There are photo opportunities and scenery at and around the Observatory, with views of the Pacific Ocean, the Hollywood Sign and Downtown Los Angeles.

This is the view of the Hollywood sign from the north side of Griffith Observatory 2011.
This is the view from the east side of Griffith Observatory 2011.
This is the view of downtown Los Angeles from the south side of Griffith Observatory 2011.
This is the view of the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Monica area from the west side of Griffith Observatory 2011.
This is the road leading up to the Observatory, East Observatory Avenue. This is where you can find additional parking 2011.

Filming location[edit]


The observatory was featured in two major sequences of the celebrated James Dean film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which helped to make it an international emblem of Los Angeles.[2] A bust of Dean was subsequently placed at the west side of the grounds.

It has also appeared in a number of other movies:


The Observatory has appeared in episodes of the following TV shows:

Other media
  • An image of the observatory is shown in a 2Pac music video, To Live And Die In L.A.. The video pays homage to Los Angeles and its best known landmarks.
  • Some interview segments with rock musician Ringo Starr for the Beatles Anthology video were conducted on the observatory grounds during the early 1990s.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b A History of. Griffith Observatory. Retrieved on 2013-08-25.
  2. ^ a b c Harnisch, Larry. (2013, February 25). A cosmic gift to L.A. The Los Angeles Times: retrieved 2013-02-26.
  3. ^ Kennedy, David (1999). Freedom From Fear, pp. 252–253, Oxford University Press, USA
  4. ^ "Swinging Pendulum Shows Rotation of Earth" Popular Mechanics, April 1935
  5. ^ a b "Griffith Observatory Building Features-Gunther Depths of Space". Retrieved 2009-02-05. 
  6. ^ "Griffith Observatory - Building Features: The Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon". Retrieved 2009-02-05. 
  7. ^ Broder, John M. (2006-05-11). "Observatory Reopens in Fall". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-02-05. 
  8. ^ "Benefit Popup-Friends of the Observatory". Retrieved 2009-02-05. 
  9. ^ Firefighters get L.A. blaze under control -[dead link]
  10. ^ "Calendar of Events". Griffith Observatory. Retrieved 2009-02-05. 
  11. ^ Campbell, Robert D. Reminiscences of a Birdman Living History Press, LLC, 2012.
  12. ^ Cover page caption The Griffith Observer, August 1965, p. 109
  13. ^
  14. ^ “Cowboys And Robots: the Birth of the Science Fiction Western” by Jeffrey Richardson. Crossed Genres (1935-02-23). Retrieved on 2013-08-25.
  15. ^ "TV Locations - part 7". Gary Wayne. Retrieved 2007-08-04. 

External links[edit]