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Perched on Mt. Hollywood in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park, Griffith Observatory is one of the greatest cultural attractions in the “City of Angels.” In 1896, Griffith J. Griffith donated 3,000 acres of land and requested in his will that an observatory, planetarium, and exhibit hall be built for the public on the property. Constructed during the Great Depression and dedicated in May 1935, more than 13,000 people came to visit the observatory and exhibits in just the first five days. Since its opening, more than 70 million people have visited the observatory, which offers premier views of the city and the notorious Hollywood sign. The grounds, telescope, and exhibits at Griffith Observatory are open to the public six days a week and is free of charge.

Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles

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Griffith Observatory under construction in the early 1930s

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The observatory was the idea of Griffith J. Griffith, a mining and real estate magnate who donated 3,000 acres for its construction

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Visitors peaks through the telescope at Griffith Observatory

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The view of Los Angeles from Griffith Observatory at night

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The "Rebel Without a Cause Monument" at Griffith Observatory

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The Samuel Oschin Planetarium inside Griffith Observatory

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The Astronomers Monument, built by sculptors employed by the New Deal program, the Public Works of Art Project

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Griffith Observatory was built on what was originally a Spanish settlement called Rancho Los Felis, which had been bequeathed to Corporal Vincente Felis in the late 1770s by California’s Spanish Governor. It would remain in the family until an affluent mining speculator named Griffith J. Griffith purchased the remaining land in 1882. Born in Wales, Griffith emigrated to the United States as a teenager and made his fortune in Mexican silver mines and California real estate. Though he preferred to be called “Colonel Griffith,” there is no record of him serving in the military nor being commissioned an officer. A controversial figure, Griffith gained notoriety in 1903 when he, heavily under the influence of alcohol, shot his wife Tina in the face. Tina Griffith, who miraculously survived, divorced Griffith and he was sentenced to two years in San Quentin.

It was while visiting Europe with Tina that Griffith took note of the great parks that could be found across the continent, and he saw the need for a similar park in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles. In December 1896, Griffith donated a total of 3,015 acres of Rancho Los Felis to the City of Los Angeles and requested that a park in his name be built. The City Council accepted Griffith’s gift, and Griffith Park would become the largest urban park in the United States. Griffith also had a strong fascination for astronomy, first becoming acquainted with it through the Astronomical Section of the Southern California Academy of Sciences.

He then traveled to a new research observatory at Mount Wilson and gazed at the sky through the 60-inch telescope, the largest telescope in existence at that time. This inspired Griffith to introduce the people of Los Angeles to the new science. In 1912, he gifted an additional $100,000 to the City, asking that an observatory be built on Mount Hollywood. The observatory would include a telescope for the public to access for free, a hall of exhibits, and a theater to show educational films.

The City Council created a three-person trust committee to oversee the construction of the observatory, but as Griffith aged and his health declined, it became evident to him that it would not be completed in his lifetime. In his will, he laid out specific instructions for the observatory, its location, the programs it should offer, and the accompanying Greek theatre. In 1930, eleven years after Griffith’s death, a group of astronomers and scientists joined a team working on the designing of the observatory. This group included George Ellery Hale, who had designed the telescope at Mount Wilson that so amazed Griffith.

Finally, in June 1933, groundbreaking for the long-planned Griffith Observatory took place. With the nation in the depths of the Great Depression, builders were able to purchase some of the finest and most durable material for low prices. In 1934, the Astronomers Monument, built by six sculptors employed by the Public Works of Art Project, was dedicated. The monument was deemed one of the most important pieces to be completed under the New Deal program. The six figures in the sculpture include: Hipparchus, Nicholas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, and William Herschel.

On May 14, 1935, Griffith Observatory was formally dedicated in an elaborate ceremony. The Griffith Trust handed the observatory over to the City of Los Angeles’s Department of Recreation and Parks. The Zeiss telescope, located in the rooftop dome on the east end of the observatory, has been looked through by more visitors than any other telescope in the world. The observatory has been featured in several movies and television series including: The Terminator, Transformers, The Rocketeer, and La La Land. It famously appeared in two prominent scenes in the 1955 James Dean movie, Rebel Without a Cause. On the west side of the grounds, visitors can see a bust dedicated in honor of Dean, who died shortly before the movie was released.

In 2002, nearly 70 years after Griffith Observatory opened to the public, it underwent an extensive renovation plan. There were four main goals to the project: renovation, expansion, renovating the planetarium, and restyling the exhibit programs offered. After four years, the observatory opened once again to the public on November 3, 2006. Griffith Observatory has welcomed millions of visitors since it opened in the 1930s and remains one of most popular attractions in the City of Los Angeles, fulfilling the mission of the man who dreamt of this great park, Griffith J. Griffith. 

Griffith Observatory: The Story of an L.A. Icon, Discover Los Angeles. January 7th, 2020. Accessed February 10th, 2023.

A History of Griffith Observatory: 1896-2002, Griffith Observatory. Accessed February 12th, 2023.

Astronomers Monument & Sundial, Griffith Observatory. Accessed February 17th, 2023.

The Renovation and Expansion of Griffith Observatory, Griffith Observatory. Accessed February 17th, 2023.

Griffith Observatory, Historic Hollywood Photographs. October 3rd, 2019. Accessed February 18th, 2023.

Meares, Hadley. The Complex Life of Griffith J. Griffith, KCET. October 16th, 2019. Accessed February 19th, 2023.

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