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Los Angeles' hillside star is shining again

Griffith Observatory, reopening this week after renovations, is not just an eye on the sky -- it's a beloved link to the city's past.

October 29, 2006|Jim Newton | Times Staff Writer

There is something about the Griffith Observatory, which reopens this week after a four-year renovation, that makes it more than mere landmark, something akin to an exemplar of Los Angeles itself.

The observatory was the indirect outgrowth of a scandal, kissed by criminality. It was willed into existence by grand ambition, delayed by politics, hashed out in the courts and then, at last, it came of age in gilded splendor: a fan favorite that drew millions in its first years. And as the observatory grew to maturity, it found its way to film and there sealed its place as an iconic emblem of the city it perches above.

"It's a powerful memory site," said D.J. Waldie, an author and observer of Los Angeles and Southern California culture. Grand and optimistic, solid in construction and radiating confidence in science, the observatory is the rare institution that binds Los Angeles to its past, he said -- "a durable site for memories" in a city that "has a tendency to scrub its past clean."

The observatory got its start through the generosity of Griffith J. Griffith, an early Los Angeles silver mining magnate with plenty of need for redemption. In 1903, Griffith forced his wife to kneel and pray and then shot her in the head. She lived. He went to prison and then, after nearly two years behind bars, returned home to Los Angeles and resumed his life.

A free man again, Griffith in his later years devoted much time and attention to leaving a better Los Angeles. He donated the vast and hilly land that was to become Griffith Park -- more than 4,000 acres -- and he offered to give the city $100,000 to build an observatory on the property.

Describing the project, Griffith captured early Los Angeles' sense of boundlessness and reach. "Ambition," he told the city's mayor, "must have broad spaces and mighty distances."

Proving that not all of Los Angeles' troubles are new ones, however, Griffith's attempt to donate the money for the building became bogged down in a contentious discussion with the City Council, which could not decide how to accept and allocate the gift. The park itself was also underappreciated: In its early years, California historian Kevin Starr notes, the trees of Griffith Park were logged for firewood.

Stymied by the stubborn council, Griffith died without handing over the money for the observatory, but he bequeathed it to the city anyway. The project's troubles did not end there, though, as planners then turned to dickering over where precisely to put the building. Some believed that Griffith imagined it on top of Mt. Hollywood, while others suggested that a more appropriate location would be just below the mountain's peak, where it would be more accessible to the public.

Foreshadowing the politics of the future, the two sides took their debate to court. Superior Court Judge Albert Lee Stephens walked the competing sites and consulted at length with architects and trustees of the estate. In 1931, 12 years after Griffith left the money to the city, Stephens picked the site below the peak. "The question of the populace enjoying this munificent gift is an important one," he concluded.

By then, Griffith's bequest had grown to $750,000, and architect John C. Austin, who had lobbied for the lower-elevation site, completed his plans for the building within six weeks.

Workers leveled a section of hill 1,134 feet above sea level and constructed the observatory's signature features -- its theater for the planetarium, its stately dome and its telescope, through which millions would eventually peer into space.

Even as it took shape, the building was visible across Los Angeles, from the far reaches of the Westside, around the swath of South and East L.A. Although concealed from the San Fernando Valley, a glimpse of it could even be had from Eagle Rock, where the dome is visible through a nook in the Hollywood Hills.

At 8 p.m. on May 14, 1935, the observatory and its planetarium projector, which was built in Germany and shipped to Los Angeles, opened to the public.

In the days leading up to it, the site was so enticing that special fences had to be erected to keep the curious at bay so construction crews could finish the job. One small party was allowed in early, and the Los Angeles Times' report only heightened the city's anticipation.

"Would you like to see how the stars looked to the shepherds of Judea on the night Jesus of Nazareth was born?" The Times asked. "Or gaze upon the night sky which watched the death struggles of long-since extinct animals as they floundered in the La Brea pits thousands of years ago? Or see how the heavens will look to California in 2034?

"Those," The Times intoned, "are just a few of the astronomical treats which are in store."

An 'airliner' view

Like the city over which it presides, the Griffith Observatory exists both in fact and in imagination, as a building and as lore.

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