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Expanding Their Universe : Astronomy: Griffith Observatory officials plan $25-million underground exhibition hall and education center at the hillside landmark.

October 22, 1994|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After 60 years of looking to the skies, operators of Los Angeles' landmark Griffith Observatory have decided that their future is beneath the ground.

That is where they want to build a huge exhibition hall and education center that will more than double the size of the ridge-top observatory--and is expected to force the closure of the facility to the public for up to a year.

The subterranean construction--12 feet beneath the observatory's front lawn--is part of a proposed $25-million expansion that includes redesign of the facility's famed planetarium and installation of new, computerized star projectors.

City officials will meet Monday to pick an architectural firm to design the 35,000-square-foot addition and manage its construction, which is expected to start in about 2 1/2 years, said Ed Krupp, observatory director.

Officials predict that it will take until then to draw plans for the subterranean hall, select a contractor and have a handmade, $3-million planetarium projector built.

The huge construction project will force observatory operators to shutter telescopes and fence off observatory grounds that draw nearly 2 million visitors a year. Thousands more come to look at the stunning view of Los Angeles below. About 40% of those visiting the planetarium pay to see "Laserium," a privately run rock music laser show that will also close when construction starts.

Officials say they hope to operate temporary stargazing exhibits or send smaller mobile telescopes to schools during construction.

The expansion is the first for the observatory since it was built in 1934 with a $750,000 trust willed to the city by Col. Griffith J. Griffith. He was a mining and real estate speculator who donated Griffith Park to the city in 1896.

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Officials say they have decided to go underground to avoid tampering with the observatory's Art Deco look or ruining its eye-catching, three-dome profile on the hillside beneath the Hollywood sign.

"It's more expensive, but it seems to be the best way not to affect the character or appearance of this building," said Krupp, an Eagle Rock resident who is the observatory's fifth director.

"The architecture of the observatory is too precious to compromise. This place looks like an observatory. You have domes, a hillside location, grand architecture. It says you're in a different environment up here."

The expansion will be financed primarily by an $18-million share of a ballot measure approved in 1992 by county voters for parks projects. Another $1 million will come from observatory funds saved in recent years. Observatory supporters hope to raise the remaining $6 million.

Officials say the observatory has changed little since it opened May 14, 1935, overlooking a city that then had a population of about 1 million.

"We're the seventh most popular tourist attraction in the Los Angeles area, yet we're the size of a postage stamp," Krupp said.

Initial plans call for the underground hall to have space for new astronomical exhibits, a restaurant that will replace the concrete-block snack bar aboveground, a bookstore and gift shop, classrooms and a small auditorium.

The subterranean expansion will feature a curving "entry plaza" that opens to the ground next to the observatory parking lot. Stairs and elevators will link the entry level with a new front lawn planted above the underground hall.

The 37-foot Astronomers Monument featuring Galileo and five other early stargazers will be removed during construction and reinstalled later.

Except for some repairs to its rooftop visitors deck, the observatory's original poured-concrete exterior will remain untouched. Three copper-topped domes over the observatory's 12-inch refractor telescope, the planetarium and the solar telescope were refurbished 10 years ago.

The observatory's interior will be extensively renovated, however. Restrooms will be added, wheelchair facilities will be installed, worn marble flooring will be replaced in the foyer, and frescoes and murals by artist Hugo Ballin will be cleaned and repaired.

The 648-seat planetarium will be redesigned. The proposal calls for seating to be reduced to about 350 so a stage can be built on the circular theater's south side.

A new 75-foot-wide curved ceiling made from perforated aluminum will replace the existing plaster dome. A hydraulic lift system that can lower the star projector out of sight when it's not being used will be installed in the center of the seating area.

The current projector, a 30-year-old Zeiss model that can project 6,500 stars and nine planets on the ceiling, will be replaced with a computerized version. Officials say the old projector--which they admit resembles "a giant ant with a thyroid condition"--will be put on display in the new underground exhibit area.

City officials are also considering buying a second projector, a television-scanning device that can digitally depict the edge of the galaxy.

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The changes are long overdue, according to those involved in the project.

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