Nothing Better than Griffith Observatory

Is there any public space in Los Angeles more wonderful than Griffith Observatory? griffith5.jpg

It is an architectural gem set against a cliff overlooking a vast expanse of Los Angeles. It is a celebration of a branch of science, astronomy, to which Southern California can stake a proud claim. In a few weeks, it will reopen after a five-year renovation project, but because our friends Todd & Robin Mason have gained the affection of both the scientific and science-history communities in this area, they were invited to a preview opening Sunday morning — and let my wife and me tag along.

The Masons are finalizing a documentary, “Journey to Palomar,” the story of George Ellery Hale’s creation of the Mt. Wilson and Palomar Telescopes that profoundly expanded humankind’s understanding of the universe, beginning with Edwin Hubble’s first observations of  the universe’s expansion, which led to the development of the Big Bang theory that is now almost universally accepted. The Mason’s documentary will be one of the films you can see at the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon, a new theater that the “Star Trek” actor and his wife made possible.

As will the public after November 3, we met a shuttle bus on the Orange Street side of Hollywood and Highland and presented our tickets there. The Observatory will accept visitors via a registration system, but as before the renovation, admission will be free. Waiting for the bus gave us a minute to check out the old Grauman’s Chinese Theater:gloria-swansons-handprints.jpg

We arrived to hear a talk from a volunteer who was clearly excited and proud of what had been done to bring the observatory back — and asked us not to take pictures of the few still-uncompleted details. Rather than going into the front door, which is what past visitors are familiar with, we were guided down a flight of stairs on the observatory’s west side, which leads to a new exhibit area — the Gunther Depths of Space, which covers a lot of information — our solar system and what we know about each of the planets; the stars, galaxies and nebulae; and “The Big Picture,” a 152 x 20 foot image of the “cosmic wilderness” — the Virgo cluster of stars and galaxies.

Here is what the Gunther room looks like:



And here is a detail from “The Big Picture,” which in its entirety shows you a million stars. Each lighted object on this image represents not a star, but an entire galaxy:


Upstairs, you’ll find some of the exhibits you recall, such as Foucault’s Pendulum, and the arresting murals in the rotunda, all nicely restored and probably augmented. But for me, when I got to this floor, I was less focused on the scientific information, and more on the sheer artistry of the building, indoors and out:


You probably remember this monument that depicts Gallileo and Copernicus and other early explorers of the heavens:


…and the walkways around the domes, up on the roof, opening up fantastic views of the city…



…as well as beautiful little architectural details like this:


I am really grateful we got to see this. It felt like a pilgrimage to the L.A. of old, the city and region with a spirit of adventure and discovery–a better place and a better time than L.A. now. But Griffith Observatory is here now, so the present-day is ennobled by it.

(Photo credits: From the top, #1 and #9 are by Todd Mason; #2-8 and #10 are by yours truly. And I hope the volunteers at Griffith Observatory will note that everything shown here is ready for public consumption!)


One thought on “Nothing Better than Griffith Observatory

  1. I just saw the new Griffith and it’s amazing. An interesting part of the Griffith reopening is the long financial struggle they endured. Most visitors won’t think much about this but it was a hard won mix of public and private money – all $90 million of it. The private money was needed because city funds were so limited. It’s probably a good thing to have such a mix, (such as Leonard Nimoy’s $1 million Nimoy Theater) but it’s too bad such a public asset like the Griffith can’t be more easily funded with a greater percentage of public money, with private gifts being more of a capstone than part of the foundation. Millions of people will be lifted by the new Griffith experience – I heard they expect over five million visitors a year including lots of tourists. The new Griffith will become an ambassador of the best of Los Angeles to the whole world. It helps remind people that the pursuit of intellectual progress is one of the best things that Americans do. That alone would seem to justify the cost. Los Angeles just got better.

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