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Eye on the Sky Closing

Landmark: Thousands flock to Griffith Observatory, which shuts down today for a 3-year renovation.


Nostalgia, curiosity, sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-60s drew thousands of visitors Saturday to the 67-year-old Griffith Observatory in the hills above Los Angeles.

With a $66-million renovation scheduled, the doors will close with a ceremony at 10 tonight. The observatory, one of the city's best-known landmarks, is expected to remain closed for three years.

Since its opening in 1935, the observatory has provided something for almost everyone.

On Saturday, a grandmother passed down a sense of history, a film student reflected on the city's icons, a mother tried to slake her two sons' thirst for knowledge about the sky.

Close to 6 million people have peered through its 12-inch telescope, more than any other telescope in the world, said Mark Pine, deputy director of Friends of the Observatory, a nonprofit observatory support group.

It's been a quintessential L.A. scene-setter in hundreds of movies and television shows, and site for untold thousands of field trips for Southern California children. A few of those children may owe their existence to romances stoked on the observatory's viewing deck, with its dizzying and panoramic view of the city.

Spurred by the news of the coming shutdown, throngs have been rushing to beat the clock--or more appropriately, the observatory's Foucault pendulum--in recent weeks.

"There's been a huge increase in people over the last two weeks," said Nicholas Novi, a Los Angeles Department of Transportation driver whose weekend route runs from the Red Line Station at Vermont Avenue and Sunset Boulevard up to the observatory. Novi, who sometimes visits the observatory on his days off, said his daily passenger average has increased from 60 to 80 people per day to nearly 200 over the last two weeks.

"It's nice that they're renovating it," he said, "but I hope they don't change it too much."

There are plans for extensive renovations, including cleaning of the observatory's three copper domes and construction of a new underground theater named after Leonard Nimoy, of Star Trek fame, who donated $1 million to the project. The plans, however, call for retaining the observatory's distinctive Art Deco architecture.

Donated to the city by Col. Griffith J. Griffith and designed by architects John C. Austin and F.M. Ashley, the observatory is listed as Cultural Heritage Monument No. 168.

That designation was not lost on Emi Ensley, who returned with her two daughters and nine of her 12 grandchildren Saturday, after Friday's crowds proved too much.

"It's important to me that my grandchildren learn about landmarks and history firsthand, not just by seeing it in a book or jumping on the computer to see a picture of it," she said. Ensley, 52, grew up in Los Angeles and estimated that she has visited the observatory more than 200 times since her childhood.

Carlos Gonzalez grew up in Los Angeles, but gained a new appreciation for the observatory when he moved to Arizona to study filmmaking.

"It's in so many old movies, stuff like 'Rebel Without a Cause,' " he said. "It really represents the city because no matter where you go, it catches your eye."

Gonzalez, 31, said the observatory is a muse and a good place to bring friends from out of town when he returns home.

Sonmi Carvalho of Huntington Beach, a first-time visitor, wanted her two sons, who are fascinated by astronomy, to see the observatory before it closes.

Eight-year-old Christopher, who can name all of the planets in the solar system, was transfixed by the gravity well, a curve-sloped cone that uses steel balls to demonstrate the rotation of planets around the sun.

On the steps outside the observatory, Sachio Takata, 78, Asaichi Hieshima, 82, and Yoshi Hieshima, 78, visited their old haunt one more time. The three friends have been visiting the observatory since before World War II, when Asaichi and Yoshi, who have been married for 60 years, were dating. Takata, a widower, used to visit with his wife as well.

"It was cheap," he said.

"It's very romantic," Yoshi said.

The three plan to visit the observatory again when it reopens in 2005.

"If we're still around, we'll come back," Takata said. "But we wanted to come today," he said. "Just in case."

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