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Griffith Observatory :

A HISTORY OF GRIFFITH OBSERVATORY


(Edited from an article by Christopher Hansen and Melanie Wang, Pomona College and Anthony Cook, Griffith Observatory)


Griffith Observatory's unique architecture and setting, compelling programmatic offerings, and cinematic exposure have made it one of the most famous and visited landmarks in southern California. Tens of millions have come to walk the inside of the building, view the live planetarium shows, or simply gaze out towards the coast and the heavens. This cultural and scientific icon owes its existence to the dream of one man, Griffith Jenkins Griffith, and to the dedicated scientists and public servants who worked to fulfill his vision of making astronomy and observation accessible to all.


A Great City Needs a Great Park The land on which Griffith Observatory sits was once a part of a Spanish settlement known as Rancho Los Felis. The Spanish Governor of California bequeathed it to Corporal Vincente Felis in the 1770s. The land stayed in the Felis family for over a century, being subdivided through generations, until Griffith, a wealthy mining speculator, purchased what remained of the rancho in 1882.


Griffith J. Griffith was born in Wales in 1850 and came to America as a teenager. He worked as a journalist and mining advisor before making his fortune in Mexican silver mines and, subsequently, southern California real estate. He moved to Los Angeles after purchasing the rancho and spent the rest of his life there. Griffith enjoyed being referred to as ?Colonel Griffith?, though it seems he was never officially commissioned as an officer (nor is it clear that he even served in the military).


During a tour abroad, Griffith had discovered the great public parks of Europe and decided that his home, Los Angeles, would need a "Great Park" for the public in order to become a great city. On December 16, 1896, he donated 3,015 acres of Rancho Los Felis to the City of Los Angeles in order to create a public park in his name. "It must be made a place of rest and relaxation for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people," Griffith said on that occasion. "I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happy, cleaner, and finer city. I wish to pay my debt of duty in this way to the community in which I have prospered." Griffith Park became the largest urban park in the U.S. with wilderness areas. The City Council proclamation accepting Griffith's gift hangs (along with a portrait commissioned after his death) in the W.M. Keck Foundation Central Rotunda inside Griffith Observatory.


Griffith's Transforming Vision


Griffith J. Griffith was introduced to astronomy through the Astronomical Section of the Southern California Academy of Sciences. He was also impressed by his visits to the new research observatory established at Mount Wilson in 1904. He believed that an individual gained an enlightened perspective when looking at the skies. His reaction after looking through the 60-inch telescope at Mount Wilson -- then the largest in the world -- was described by John Anson Ford: "The experience moved him profoundly - a distant, heavenly body suddenly being brought so close and made so real!" Ford quotes Griffith as saying "Man's sense of values ought to be revised. If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would change the world!"


Griffith's experience on Mount Wilson focused his desire to make science more accessible to the public. On December 12, 1912, he offered the City of Los Angeles $100,000 for an observatory to be built on the top of Mount Hollywood to be fully owned and operated by the City of Los Angeles. Griffith's plan for the observatory would include an astronomical telescope open to free viewing, a Hall of Science designed to bring the public into contact with exhibits about the physical sciences, and a motion picture theater which would show educational films about science and other subjects. This last aspect of the plan would eventually evolve into the planetarium, a technology not invented until the 1920s.


The City Council accepted Griffith's gift and appointed him head of a three-person Trust committee to supervise the construction of the observatory and a greek theatre performing arts facility, which Griffith promised to the city the following year. Bogged down by further political debate, the project continued to be delayed. In 1916, with his health failing, Griffith realized that his vision of a public observatory would not be realized in his lifetime. He drafted a will containing bequests for the observatory and greek theatre, along with detailed specifications regarding the nature of the observatory, its location, and programmatic offerings. Griffith died on July 6, 1919.