Griffith Observatory Opens

The steel skeleton frame of the Griffith Observatory's main dome takes shape in this December 1933 photo. The building opened 17 months later.

Photo: Henry E. Huntington Memorial Library


Observatory Opens, City Star-Struck

Whether we see it on a morning drive up Normandie Avenue, where the parallel lines of palm trees direct the eye to the sparkling jewel against the sky; or whether we notice it in a passing glance from the Hollywood Freeway, a spot of grandeur in a sea of green; or whether it is studied from the hills of Silver Lake in evening haze, the Griffith Observatory is a celebration of all times.

Kiernan Prather's thoughts, expressed in a 1985 Los Angeles Herald-Examiner article, reveal a paradox about the landmark that has reigned over L.A. since May 14, 1935 from its chaparral throne on the south slope of Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park.

In a city where change is so rapid that people often feel like strangers in their own neighborhoods, the Griffith Observatory is familiar and unchanging. But it is also undeniably exotic, a copper-domed science fiction palace standing aloof, above the sprawl.

Once Home to Hikers and Deer

It's easy to imagine that the observatory was here first and the city was built around it. But there are locals, like Barbara Larsen of Glendale, who can remember hiking narrow, boulder-strewn trails to a promontory on the south slope of Mount Hollywood a decade before planetarium shows first brought the universe indoors.

Larsen hiked often in the park during the mid-1920s as a member of the Glendale High School Hiking Club. She remembers the promontory as a place to see the ocean, holly berries and deer, which apparently found the hikers as interesting as the hikers found them. "You'd look at them, they'd look at you," she said.

Col. Griffith and His Dream

Col. Griffith J. Griffith (evidence suggests that the military title was self-bestowed) was a Welsh immigrant who taught himself mineralogy and geology and grew rich during the mining boom of the 1880s. Civic-minded and generous, he gave the city land (3,015 acres which now comprise the core of Griffith Park) and cash ($850,000 to build the observatory, the Greek Theatre and for other park improvements). But he was also an egocentric man who became an outcast among the city's elite after he was convicted of assault and served a year in San Quentin for shooting his wife's eye out during a domestic dispute.

He envisioned a public observatory bearing his name constructed atop Mount Hollywood, the highest point in the huge city park that also bore his name. Griffith proposed that observatory visitors be transported to the 1,625 foot peak by a funicular railway, similar to Angel's Flight, which was carrying passengers up and down Bunker Hill near his South Main Street residence.

From the top of Mount Hollywood, observatory visitors would have had a nearly 360-degree view of the growing metropolis: Glendale, Eagle Rock and Pasadena to the east; Burbank to the north; the agricultural San Fernando Valley spilling out to the northwest; Santa Monica and the Pacific Ocean to the southwest; and Hollywood, downtown and--if you squinted--Long Beach to the south.

But the site was small, the roads leading there would have been steep and the railway would have been expensive to build and maintain. The observatory was placed down the hill, elevation 1135, high enough to see Catalina on a clear day but close enough to the city for visitors on the observatory's promenade to hear car horns honking on busy Los Feliz Boulevard below.

Building a Monumental Structure

Construction began in May 1933 at the depth of the Great Depression. Labor and materials were cheap. Architects John C. Austin (also an architect of Los Angeles City Hall) and Frederick M. Ashley designed a monolithic concrete structure topped by three domes sheathed in pure copper, the largest 100 feet wide, the others 30 feet wide. Photos taken during construction show that the copper sheets were applied over steel skeleton frames.

Construction took a two years and cost a little over $655,000. Upon completion, the observatory's domes gleamed like shiny new pennies.

A Grand Opening

The Observatory's official opening on May 14, 1935 was eagerly anticipated and heavily attended. Kenneth Powell was checking invitations at the Fern Dell entrance to the park that evening. "The event had been talked up in all the newspapers for days before, and the public really responded," he told the Griffith Observer, the Observatory's magazine, in 1985.

Later, he drove up Western Canyon to the observatory. "The parking lot and the entire grounds and building were jam-packed," he recalled. "It looked like a presidential ball inside, with all the prettily-dressed women and well-dressed men."

Planetarium Proves Popular

The see-forever views, the exhibits in the Hall of Science, the 12-inch Zeiss refracting telescope installed on the roof for free public viewing, and the building's art deco grandeur all drew favorable notice. But it was the 25-cent planetarium shows that quickly captured the imagination of visitors a quarter century before the first manned Mercury space capsule.

People drove or hopped on the "V" car up Vermont Avenue (They caught connector busses at Monroe Avenue, near L.A. City College.) to see the mysterious-looking machine (Planetarium lecturers have long described its look-alike successor as "looking like a giant prehistoric ant.") at the center of the round 648-seat planetarium theater. The $75,000 Zeiss Mark I planetarium projector was only the third in the United States--and the first west of the Mississippi River.

Of course, being located on a mountain named "Hollywood" also shaped what the observatory would become. Even at the beginning--before the observatory became the real star of the 1950s cinema classic "Rebel Without a Cause," before it was Jor-El's castle on Krypton in the "Superman" television pilot, even before it was the palace of Emperor Ming the Merciless (on the planet Mongo) in the late-thirties Flash Gordon movie serials--the observatory was linked with the stars down the hill in Hollywood as well as the stars overhead. Wrote one Los Angeles Daily News reader shortly after the observatory opened:

I don't want to squint my eye
And look at planets in the sky
Or nebulea; I'd just as soon
Not see the craters in the moon;
Or Venus, Jupiter or Mars,
There is just one, of all the stars
The sight of which would bring
me joy--
I wanna see the Myrna Loy.


Writer's note: This article, one of an occasional series, is part of the Griffith Park History Project, an attempt to chronicle the park's long and remarkable life.

What memories do you have of Griffith Park? Suggestions? Questions? Criticisms?

Please call me at Glendale College 240-1000, Ext. 5352 (I have voice mail, so you can leave a message at any time.)

Write to me, Mike Eberts, Griffith Park History Project, Glendale Community College, 1500 N. Verdugo Road, Glendale, CA 91208.

E-mail me at MEberts@glendale.cc.ca.us

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