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The history of LA's greatest viewpoint

Updated: Sep 25, 2019

This California landmark has a long yet interesting past.

By Jerry Ough, Staff Writer 

It sits atop what residents in Los Angeles generously refer to as Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park, with its panoramic views of LA from the West to Eastside and its triple domed, landmark structure visible to an equally wide swath of lowlanders. The famed Griffith Observatory has, except for a major $93 million renovation from 2002 to 2006, been open to the public since May 14, 1935, for free.

The 3,015 acres of Griffith Park itself was donated to the city of Los Angeles on December 16, 1896, by real estate tycoon Griffith J. Griffith, who said, "It must be made a place of rest and relaxation for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people. I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happy, cleaner, and finer city."

After Griffith had a chance to look through the 60-inch telescope at nearby Mount Wilson, he gave the City of Los Angeles $100,000 on December 12, 1912, for the observatory in the park to be owned and operated by the city.

In 1923, four years after Griffith's death, the planetarium had been invented and it was determined that this new invention more fully honored Griffith's intent than the originally planned cinematic theater. The Observatory's planetarium was then only the third to be built in the nation.

Construction for the Griffith Observatory began on June 20, 1933; though the building was designed mostly by scientists, the eventual design was transformed by geological and economic events. 

The devastating Long Beach earthquake just a few months earlier in March 1933 convinced the architects to abandon a terra cotta exterior in favor of stronger and thicker concrete walls. 

Rock bottom prices in the aftermath of the Great Depression made it possible to buy the finest materials of the day for the Observatory's interior walls and floors, which made the building breathtakingly beautiful and extremely durable. 

It become the most-visited public observatory in the world with 1.5 million visitors a year. In 1973, the first Laserium show in the United States was presented in the Griffith Observatory's planetarium theater. This instantly popular laser-light program was set initially to classical music and later, in a stroke of marketing genius, to songs from rock artists such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

Tour guide Brendan said one of his greatest thrills working at the planetarium was, "Interacting with the public and seeing people getting excited about science. That makes my day for sure."

Upcoming special events at Griffith Observatory include a program called, “All Space Considered” on the first Friday of every month in the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater. 

Guests can listen to a panel discussion by the Observatory's curatorial staff as they explore some of the most interesting and topical subjects in astronomy and space science. Seats are on a first come, first served basis, and the next presentation is on October 4 at 7:30 p.m.

The Observatory holds free public viewing events for most lunar and solar eclipses and presents programs, marking not only the winter and summer solstices, but also the spring and fall equinoxes. 

Whether it’s astounding space photography, a special lecture, a book-signing by a noted astronomer or special programs marking major astronomical or space exploration anniversaries, the Griffith Observatory offers the most unique and fascinating free programs in Southern California.

The Griffith Observatory is open from noon to 10 p.m. on weekdays (it is closed on Mondays) and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekends, and more information is available at

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