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A New Light at Griffith Observatory

After complete restoration, the venerable observatory reopens to the public

by Michelle Evans, January 2007


It has been over 70 years since Griffith Observatory first opened its doors to the public in the hills above Los Angeles; however, for the last four years, the most visited public observatory in the world had sealed itself off from view to undergo a massive $93 million rebuilding project. The wait to see what was accomplished during this hiatus finally ended recently, with visitors now able to experience the wonder of seeing Griffith in a whole new light.


First established as a public endowment by mining magnate Griffith J. Griffith in 1896, construction on the observatory was not begun until 1933, nearly 14 years after his death. Griffith is best remembered for his generous donation to the city of Los Angeles that created Griffith Park and eventually the observatory that bears his name, as well as the Greek Theater. However, he is less know for little facts such as that he tried to kill his wife and served two years in San Quentin as a result! Trying to change his negative image, he offered the funds for the observatory as early as 1912, but the city refused the offer, looking on it as a bribe. Two decades later, the city looked more favorably on the project, and work was begun in earnest.


Nowadays, the observatory is a lasting legacy to his name, without the encumbrances of the shadier side of his life. Griffith Observatory has long been a landmark sitting high on Mt. Hollywood, overlooking the Los Angeles basin, not far east from the infamous “Hollywood” sign. The location has been used in numerous films, including James Dean’s Rebel Without a Cause, and more recently in epics such as The Rocketeer and The Terminator. For many of us, Griffith brings to mind great memories of a first observatory and planetarium visit, not to mention those nights of mind-altering Laserium.


To enter the grounds now gives little indication of all that has transpired since 2002. From the outside, very little has changed. If you had been privy to this area during reconstruction, you would have seen the massive undertaking that included lifting the entire building off its foundation without creating a single crack. This enabled workers to dig out the mountain underneath the original building to expand downward—a bizarre direction for a facility that wants us all to look outward to the universe!


All of the exhibitry was either removed or completely refurbished, changed, and updated. Old favorites such as the Foucault Pendulum that demonstrates Earth’s rotation, art deco wall panels and ceiling fresco, or the giant Moon globe, remain intact. New exhibits on meteorites, the solar system, and the universe beyond, are all state-of-the-art. The two most noticeable improvements are in the Planetarium and theater.


The “Samuel Oschin Planetarium” warps ahead of the original with a projection system that brings full-motion video to the dome and unparalleled star fields to show us all the night sky. The new Zeiss Mark IX Universarium and Evans & Sutherland laser projection system are a far cry from the slide projectors and Mark IV Zeiss starball of old. Best of all is the removal of the wholly uncomfortable wooden-backed seats, replaced with luxurious recliners that would quickly put you to sleep if not for the exciting presentation above your head. The premiere presentation for the new planetarium is entitled, Centered in the Universe, and takes viewers through the history of astronomy as an Earth-centered universe, all the way to the latest cosmology of the Big Bang and where we truly sit in relation to everything else.


The “Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater” is a beautiful addition that currently features a 23-minute presentation hosted by Nimoy himself on the observatory and its renovation. The theater is located beneath your feet as you walk in the entrance of the original building–a fact you will never notice in the manicured lawns and walkways. The film is highly entertaining, and the only quibble I might have is the screen appears tiny for the theater, but this is a small problem in an otherwise excellent presentation.


Elsewhere, you can still view directly through the observatory’s telescope on clear evenings, a privilege not many places still offer. Strolling the grounds is always delightful, especially on the day we visited. The night before had given us a much-needed rain shower, and the views in all directions were spectacular. The air was exceptionally clear when we arrived, with no sign of the smoggy, brown haze that usually obscures Los Angeles from above. The view to Palos Verdes, Catalina Island, and beyond, were a special treat. As the day wore on, the sky changed from absolutely clear blue, to clouded over with a threat of additional rain, that fortunately did not appear during our visit.


Special kudos must be extended to Orange County Space Society Board member Robert Kline. Bob has worked part-time for 28 years at Griffith, restoring exhibits and creating new ones. As those of you who have seen his work for our organization can attest, Bob’s efforts are nothing short of miraculous. Whenever he has provided OCSS with artwork or exhibit materials, such as our logo and display case, it is not only what we asked for, but always one step beyond. Dr. Edwin Krupp, Griffith Director for the past 22 years, is very lucky to have the efforts of Bob to show off to the public, and Bob must take full responsibility for all he has accomplished on behalf of science and space education.


The largest new gallery is also underground, next door to the Nimoy Theater. Here you can see giant scale representations of each planet in our solar system (even recently-demoted Pluto). Standing beneath the ringed globe of Saturn and learning more about this world, as well as seeing the latest images from space probes such as Cassini of the real deal, are always impressive. There is even a spot where you can not only touch an actual Moon rock, but one from Mars as well. As far as I know, this may be the only science center that offers such a tactile experience. Touching the Moon is scarce enough (see O.C.Space, October 2006), but being able to place your finger on Mars itself is worth the trip.


Equally impressive, but maybe not as noticeable because of its shear size, is The Big Picture, in the “Gunther Depths of Space Gallery.” You can walk by this 120-foot long and 20-foot high porcelain and metal wall and think it is just a fine depiction of a piece of the night sky. In actuality you need to step back and realize this is a real photograph of a minuscule portion of the sky near the Virgo Cluster, a spot so small it could be covered by the tip of your finger held at arms length in front of your face. You can see thousands of galaxies scattered all across the wall, and even get a telescopic view from the gallery above, 60 feet away.


With a long day scouting the expanded observatory grounds and exhibits, you’ll want to relax and grab a bite to eat at the “Cafe at the End of the Universe (with appropriate apologies to Douglas Adams!), and check out their extensive gift shop, which features lots of great books, branded apparel, jewelry, and toys.


The new Griffith Observatory is still in a state of flux, with final touches being put on some exhibits and working through the little glitches that beset these types of public venues. Overall, however, it is definitely worth your time. We met many people not only from the Los Angeles and Orange County areas, but tourists from out of state and overseas who came to partake of this new wonder. On the bus ride back to the shuttle parking area, I didn’t hear one voice that did not praise the efforts at reinvigorating this institution, and would recommend it highly to anyone who asked.


Griffith is once again open for the business of expanding your mind across the universe.