Griffith Observatory: Public Telescopes Turn Visitors Into Observers

Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.
Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, CA, is open to the public and provides stargazing opportunities, exhibits, and a planetarium for visitors to learn about the universe.

Matthew Field, via Creative Commons Attribution-Share-alike 3.0 license.

Not far from the iconic Hollywood sign, on the south-facing slope of Mount Hollywood, stands Los Angeles' other famous landmark: the Griffith Observatory. This popular movie locale is actually one of the largest observatories in the world open for public viewing and one of a selection of great space-themed places to visit in the U.S. Every year, more than a million and a half visitors look through its massive telescopes, learn from its exhibits, and experience planetarium shows.

Fast Facts: Griffith Observatory

  • Location: Griffith Observatory is located in Griffith Park in Los Feliz, Los Angeles.
  • Altitude: 1,134 feet above sea level
  • Main Attractions: Zeiss telescopes (composed of a twelve-inch and a nine and a half-inch refracting telescopes), Coelostat and solar telescopes, planetarium, exhibits, and free-standing telescopes for public use.
  • Griffith Observatory receives well over 1.5 million visitors a year.
  • Admission to the observatory is free; fees apply for parking and tickets to see the planetarium show.

Griffith Observatory is unique because it's purely a public observatory and prides itself on providing a chance for anyone to look through a telescope. Its theme and main goal are to "turn visitors into observers." This makes it a very different type of observatory than its research siblings, which focus entirely on professional astronomy observing.

Griffith Observatory from the air.
An aerial view of Griffith Observatory in 2006.  Griffith Observatory, used by permission. 

History of the Griffith Observatory

The observatory began as the dream of financier, mining magnate, and real estate developer Griffith J. Griffith. He came to southern California from Wales in the 1860s and eventually acquired the land where the observatory and park now sit. Griffith was fascinated by the great parks he saw in Europe and envisioned one for Los Angeles. Eventually, he donated his property to the city for that purpose. 

In 1904, Griffith visited nearby Mount Wilson Observatory (where astronomer Edwin P. Hubble made his discoveries) and fell in love with astronomy. He wrote: "If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would change the world." Based on that visit, Griffith decided to offer money to the city to build an observatory on top of Mount Hollywood. He wanted to make sure that the public would have access to a telescope to carry out his vision. It took some time to get the building approved, and it wasn't until 1933 (14 years after Griffith's death) that ground was broken. The observatory was conceived as a monument to science, would always be open to the public, and had to withstand all but the strongest earthquakes.

Floor plan of Griffith Observatory in 1933.
The final floorplan design for the Griffith Observatory in 1933.  Griffith Observatory, used by permission.

The observatory's planning team included scientists from Caltech and Mount Wilson, along with engineers who created plans for the observatory and its Foucault Pendulum, a 38-foot-diameter model of a section of the Moon sculpted by artist Roger Hayward, and a "three-in-one" coelostat so visitors could study the Sun. For public viewing, the teams selected a 12-inch Zeiss refracting telescope as the best commercially available instrument. That instrument remains in place, and visitors can view planets, the Moon, and selected deep-sky objects through it. In addition, they can watch the Sun during the day through the coelostat. 

The original plans for Griffith included a cinema. In 1923, after the invention of the planetarium instrument, designers for the observatory approached the Griffith family to see if they would permit a planetarium theater to be built in its place. They agreed to the planetarium, which featured a Zeiss planetarium instrument from Germany. 

Griffith Observatory: Continuing Astronomy Access

The Griffith Observatory opened its doors to the public on May 14, 1935, and was transferred to the city's department of parks and recreation. The parks also work with a support group called "Friends of the Observatory" (FOTO), in a unique public-private partnership to secure funding and other support for the observatory's ongoing mission. Tens of millions of visitors have passed through its doors, including hundreds of thousands of local school students who visit via a program funded by FOTO. The planetarium also produces unique programs that showcase the exploration of the universe. 

Apollo astronauts at Griffith Observatory
Former director Cleminshaw working with Apollo astronauts during their training in 1967. Griffith Observatory, used by permission.

Throughout its history, Griffith has served as the training ground for budding astronomers as well as astronauts. During World War II, the park hosted soldiers, and the planetarium helped train aviators in navigation. In the early 1960s, it continued that tradition by offering celestial navigation classes to 26 Apollo astronauts, including some who flew to the Moon. Over the years, the facility has broadened its access and modernized. Four directors have guided the institution: Dr. Dinsmore Alter, Dr. Clarence Cleminshaw, Dr. William J. Kaufmann II, and currently Dr. E.C. Krupp.

Expansion and Renovation

The Griffith Observatory was so beloved that, in the words of its staff, it was being loved to death. Millions of visitors trekking through, air pollution effects, and other building problems led to a renovation. In 2002, the observatory closed and commenced a four-year "rehab" of the building, its exhibits, and the newly christened Samuel Oschin Planetarium. The renovation cost just over $92 million and left the observatory with much-needed modernization, exhibits, and a new planetarium instrument. It reopened to the public on November 3, 2006.

Today, Griffith offers free access to the building and telescopes, with a small admission charge required to see the planetarium show. It hosts public star parties once a month, as well as other astronomy-related events.  

A lunar eclipse as seen through the Griffith Observatory telescope.
Events such as lunar eclipses (shown here imaged through the Observatory's 12-inc telescope draw crowds of visitors to Griffith Observatory. Griffith Observatory, shot by Tony Cook. Used by permission.  

On September 21, 2012, it welcomed thousands of visitors to witness the historic flyover of space shuttle Endeavor as it flew to its final stop in Los Angeles on the way to the California Science Center. From eclipses to stargazing, the observatory is well known as the place to be for cosmic events throughout Southern California. 

Griffith Observatory and space shuttle Endeavour.
Thousands gathered at Griffith for the last flyover of space shuttle Endeavour before it was delivered to the California Science Center in September 2012.  NASA

Griffith's Exhibits and Lecture Offerings

The observatory has a number of well-known exhibits, including a Tesla coil and an image called "The Big Picture". This image, which represents a tiny portion of the sky in the Virgo Cluster (a cluster of galaxies) that can be covered by holding one's finger out at arm's length, shows visitors the immensity of the universe and the objects it contains. The exhibits are intended to spark imagination and inquiry among visitors, through a sustained visit to the universe. They cover everything from the solar system and Earth to the most distant reaches of the observable cosmos. 

In addition to exhibits, the observatory offers lectures each month in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater. This special space is named in honor of the late Star Trek actor who portrayed the Vulcan character of Mr. Spock in Star Trek. Nimoy was a big supporter of the planetarium and was active in the effort to secure funding for its renovation. The observatory offers live-streaming access to talks in the Nimoy as well as other events. It also creates a weekly sky report and offers news archives online. 

Griffith observatory exhibits.
One part of the exhibition at Griffith, which spans from stargazing to astronomy research. This section includes "The Edge of Space" and "Depths of Space". Griffith Observatory, used by permission 

Hollywood and Griffith Observatory

Given its prominent location on Mount Hollywood, where it can be seen from throughout much of the Los Angeles basin, Griffith Observatory is a natural locale for movies. It has many connections to the entertainment industry, ranging from the Hugo Ballin (a Hollywood set designer) murals in its main rotunda to the late James Dean "Rebel without a Cause" statue outside the building. Many movies have been shot at Griffith since its opening. This includes scenes from "Rebel" as well as more recent films such as "The Terminator," "Transformers," "The Rocketeer," and "La La Land."

A "Must See" Experience

Griffith Observatory is iconic and legendary, and its place on Mount Hollywood has earned it the nickname "The Hood Ornament of Los Angeles" from its long-time director, Dr. E.C. Krupp. It's a familiar part of the skyline, accessible to all. It continues to provide a glimpse of the cosmos for those who make the trek up the mountain. 

Sources

  • http://www.griffithobservatory.org/
  • Griffith Observatory TV, https://livestream.com/GriffithObservatoryTV
  • https://www.pcmag.com/feature/347200/7-cool-things-to-see-at-la-s-griffith-observatory 
  • http://thespacewriter.com/wp/2015/05/14/griffith-observatory-turns-80/
  • https://theculturetrip.com/north-america/usa/california/articles/8-films-where-las-griffith-observatory-plays-a-pivotal-role/