Griffith Observatory is a facility in Los Angeles, California, situated on the south-facing slope of Mount Hollywood in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park. Griffith Observatory is an icon of Los Angeles, a national leader in public astronomy, a beloved civic gathering place, and one of southern California’s most popular attractions. Griffith Observatory inspires everyone to observe, ponder, and understand the sky.
The Observatory is located on the southern slope of Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park, just above the Los Feliz neighborhood. It commands a view of the Los Angeles Basin, including Downtown Los Angeles to the southeast, Hollywood to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the southwest. It is 1,134 feet above sea level and is visible from many parts of the Los Angeles basin. The Observatory is the best vantage point for observing the world-famous Hollywood Sign.
The observatory is a popular tourist attraction with a close view of the Hollywood Sign and an extensive array of space and science-related displays. Visitors may look through telescopes, explore exhibits, see live shows in the Samuel Oschin Planetarium, and enjoy spectacular views of Los Angeles and the Hollywood Sign. Since opening in 1935, the Observatory has welcomed over 85 million visitors.
The Observatory is a free-admission, public facility owned and operated by the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks in the middle of an urban metropolis of ten million people. The 67,000 square-foot building is one of the most popular informal education facilities in the United States and the most-visited public observatory in the world (with 1.6 million visitors a year).
Griffith Observatory is a unique hybrid of public observatory, planetarium, and exhibition space. It was constructed with funds from the bequest of Griffith J. Griffith (who donated the land for Griffith Park in 1896), who specified the purpose, features, and location of the building in his 1919 will. Upon completion of construction in 1935, the Observatory was given to the City of Los Angeles with the provision that it be operated for the public with no admission charge. When it opened in 1935, it was one of the first institutions in the U.S. dedicated to public science and possessed the third planetarium in the U.S.
Fulfilling the Observatory’s goal of “visitor as observer,” free public telescope viewing is available each evening skies are clear and the building is open. More people (8 million) have looked through the Observatory’s Zeiss 12-inch refracting telescope than through any other on Earth. More than 18 million have seen a live program in the Observatory’s Samuel Oschin Planetarium.
The building operated continuously from 1935 until January 6, 2002, when it closed for a comprehensive renovation and expansion. This ambitious $93-million project renewed the Observatory’s world-class standing and restored and enhanced the Observatory’s ability to pursue its public astronomy mission, all driven by a commitment to excellence and enabled by a successful public-private partnership between the City of Los Angeles and Friends Of The Observatory. The renewed building reopened to the public on November 2, 2006. It has operated since then with steadily increasing attendance and cultural visibility.
While Griffith Observatory opened in 1935, the first concept of the Observatory emerged decades earlier. In 1904, Griffith J. Griffith had a profound experience observing through Mount Wilson Observatory’s 60-inch telescope and decided there needed to be a public observatory in Los Angeles so people could share in his transformative moment of observing. The inspiration for the Observatory and for Griffith Park came from Griffith J. Griffith who was the benefactor for both. The Observatory realized his vision for tens of millions of people and became an icon of Los Angeles.
On December 16, 1896, 3,015 acres (12.20 km2) of land surrounding the observatory was donated to the City of Los Angeles by Griffith J. Griffith. In his will Griffith donated funds to build an observatory, exhibit hall, and planetarium on the donated land. Griffith’s objective was to make astronomy accessible by the public, as opposed to the prevailing idea that observatories should be located on remote mountaintops and restricted to scientists.
Griffith drafted detailed specifications for the observatory. In drafting the plans, he consulted with Walter Sydney Adams, the future director of Mount Wilson Observatory, and George Ellery Hale, who founded (with Andrew Carnegie) the first astrophysical telescope in Los Angeles.
The idea of a “public observatory” was a very new one at the turn of the 20th century, but Griffith developed very precise specifications regarding what should be included in the building. From 1935-2002, the Observatory provided southern Californians and visitors from around the world with chances to observe, to learn, and to be inspired.
As a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project, construction began on June 20, 1933, using a design developed by architect John C. Austin based on preliminary sketches by Russell W. Porter. The observatory and accompanying exhibits were opened to the public on May 14, 1935, as the country’s third planetarium. In its first five days of operation the observatory logged more than 13,000 visitors. Dinsmore Alter was the museum’s director during its first years.
During World War II the planetarium was used to train pilots in celestial navigation. The planetarium was again used for this purpose in the 1960s to train Apollo program astronauts for the first lunar missions.
The observatory was featured in two major sequences of the James Dean film Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which helped to make it an international emblem of Los Angeles. A bust of Dean was subsequently placed at the west side of the grounds. It has also appeared in a number of other movies.
As early as 1978, public and private officials recognized the Observatory’s future would depend on a concerted effort to restore the existing building and expand it to improve the experience for the vast audiences who visited each year. Guided by a 1990 Master Plan, the City of Los Angeles and non-profit Friends Of The Observatory crafted a unique public-private partnership to ensure the Observatory would continue its mission for generations to come.
The building closed to the public on January 6, 2002, to begin this work. A world-class team of architects, exhibit designers, astronomy experts, construction workers, exhibit fabricators, instrument and equipment builders, and many others worked carefully and expertly for four years to return Griffith Observatory to the people of Los Angeles and beyond. It reopened to the public on 2006, retaining its Art Deco exterior.
When the doors reopened to the public on November 3, 2006, the renewed Observatory once again took its place on the world stage. The $93 million renovation, paid largely by a public bond issue, restored the building, as well as replaced the aging planetarium dome. The building was expanded underground, with completely new exhibits, a café, gift shop, and the new Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater.
Griffith’s vision for the building was updated and enhanced when the Observatory was renovated and expanded from 2002-2006. Since reopening after renovation, the Observatory has reached increasingly larger audiences, both in-person, online, and through media and film. In 2020, the Observatory celebrated its 85th anniversary.
The building combines Greek and Beaux-Arts influences, and the exterior is embellished with the Greek key pattern. The observatory is split up into six sections: The Wilder Hall of the Eye, the Ahmanson Hall of the Sky, the W. M. Keck Foundation Central Rotunda, the Cosmic Connection, the Gunther Depths of Space Hall, and the Edge of Space Mezzanine.
The Wilder Hall of the Eye, located in the east wing of the main level focuses on astronomical tools like telescopes and how they evolved over time so people can see further into space. Interactive features there include a Tesla coil and a “Camera Obscura”, which uses mirrors and lenses to focus light onto a flat surface.
The Ahmanson Hall of the Sky, located in the west wing, focuses on objects that are normally found in the sky, like the Sun and Moon. The main centerpiece of this section is a large solar telescope projecting images of the Sun, using a series of mirrors called coelostats. Exhibits here include a periodic table of the elements, a Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, and several alcoves showing exhibits about topics like day and night, the paths of the Sun and stars, the seasons, the phases of the Moon, tides, and eclipses. The W. M. Keck Foundation Central Rotunda features several Hugo Ballin murals on the ceiling and upper walls restored since 1934, a Foucault pendulum that demonstrates the Earth’s rotation, and a small exhibit dedicated to Griffith J. Griffith, after whom the observatory is named.
The Cosmic Connection is a 150 ft long hallway connecting the main building and the underground exhibition areas (see below) that depicts the history of the universe, and dramatizes the amount of time that has passed from the Big Bang to the present day using, hundreds of individual pieces of astronomy-related jewelry.
The Gunther Depths of Space Hall is the lower level of the observatory, dominated by “The Big Picture,” and scale models of the Solar System. The planets (including dwarf planet Pluto) are shown relative to the size of the sun, which is represented by the diameter of the Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon Theater. Below each planet are listed facts, as well as scales indicating a person’s weight on planets having a solid surface (or weight at an altitude where atmospheric pressure would equal one bar otherwise).
In addition, beneath the Earth’s model, there is a small room containing a large model Earth globe, an older Zeiss planetarium projector, and a set of seismograph rolls, including one tracking room motion caused by occupants. The other rolls are attached to seismographs monitoring movement at the bedrock level, and indicate actual seismic activity. On the north wall of the Depths of Space is “The Big Picture”, a 150 feet (46 m) by 20 feet (6.1 m) photograph (the largest astronomical image in the world) showing a portion of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. This image was taken over the course of 11 nights by the 48-inch Samuel Oschin telescope at Palomar Mountain. There is also a bronze statue of Albert Einstein sitting on a bench in the Depths of Space. Einstein is holding his index finger about 1 foot (0.30 m) in front of his eyes, to illustrate the visual area of space that is captured in The Big Picture.
The Edge of Space Mezzanine, which overlooks the Depths of Space Hall, focuses more on astronomy related topics that involve celestial bodies much closer to Earth, with exhibits including meteorite displays, an asteroid impact simulator, a cloud and spark chamber, and a large globe of the Moon, and with telescopes that allow a closer inspection of The Big Picture.
Sparking imagination and inquiry through exposure to the awe and wonder inherent in astronomy is the goal of Griffith Observatory’s exhibit program. Each visitor is cast in the role of an observer and provided with opportunities to see and do real observing in authentic environments. By exploring fundamental questions – what do we observe, how do we observe it, and why it is important – the exhibits prompt visitors to ponder their own relationship with the universe. Each major exhibit area focuses on a unique aspect of human observation of the sky and space.
Observatory Front Lawn
The grounds of the Observatory present compelling opportunities to observe the movement of the Sun and Moon and to walk a scale model of the solar system. Looming over the lawn is a monumental sculpture celebrating astronomers who gradually revealed the nature of the universe. The terraces offer vistas of Los Angeles, there are photo opportunities and scenery at and around the Observatory, with views of Griffith Park, Mt. Wilson, the Pacific Ocean, the Hollywood Sign and Downtown Los Angeles.
The Astronomers Monument is a large outdoor concrete sculpture on the front lawn of the Observatory that pays homage to six of the greatest astronomers of all time: Hipparchus (about 150 BC); Nicholas Copernicus (1473–1543); Galileo Galilei (1564–1642); Johannes Kepler (1571–1630); Isaac Newton (1642–1727); and William Herschel (1738–1822).
Soon after the Public Works of Art Project began in December 1933, in cooperation with the Los Angeles Park Commission, PWAP commissioned a sculpture project on the grounds of the Griffith Observatory which was under construction. Using a design by local artist Archibald Garner and materials donated by the Women’s’ Auxiliary of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, Garner and five other artists sculpted and cast the concrete monument and figures. Each artist was responsible for sculpting one astronomer; one of the artists, George Stanley, was also the creator of the famous “Oscar” statuette presented at the Academy Awards. On November 25, 1934, about six months prior to the opening of the Observatory, a celebration took place to mark completion of the Astronomers Monument. The only “signature” on the Astronomers Monument is “PWAP 1934” referring to the program which funded the project and the year it was completed.
There are photo opportunities and scenery at and around the Observatory, with views of the Pacific Ocean, the Hollywood Sign and Downtown Los Angeles.
Griffith Observatory is one of the premier public observatories in the world. One of the principle reasons is the presence and regular availability of high-quality public telescopes. Griffith J. Griffith wanted the public to have the opportunity to look through a telescope, which he felt might broaden human perspective. Mounted in the copper-clad domes on either end of the building, the Zeiss and solar telescopes are free to the public every day and night the building is open, and the sky is clear.
Wilder Hall of the Eye
The Wilder Hall of the Eye illustrates the nature and progress of human observation of the sky and the tools used for that exploration. This exhibit gallery focuses on how people have observed the sky, and the often profound impact those observations have had on people and society. Each of the four Wilder Hall of the Eye exhibit areas charts the key developments that have further evolved our ability to help our eyes see farther, fainter, and beyond.
Ahmanson Hall of the Sky
The Sun and Moon dominate our sky and measure the march of time. Sunrise, sunset, and the passing of years and seasons – as well as the restless tides, monthly Moon phases, and awe-inspiring eclipses – occur because the Earth and Moon move in relation to the Sun and each other. The Sun is the most dynamic object in the sky. It warms our planet and makes life possible. As the closest star to Earth, it also offers us a glimpse into the nature of all stars.
On display at the Observatory is a large Tesla coil, dubbed “GPO-1”, one of a pair which were built in 1910 by Earle Ovington. Ovington, who would go on to fame as an aviator, ran a company which built high voltage generators for medical X-ray and electrotherapy devices. In public demonstrations of his generators, the spectacular displays drew crowds. Ovington designed the Observatory’s coil to surpass a coil made by Elihu Thomson in 1893 which generated a 64-inch spark. The project caught the attention of an Edison Electric Illuminating Company official, who offered $1,000 if the coil were displayed at an upcoming electrical show in Madison Square Garden, with the stipulation that the machine would produce sparks not less than ten feet long.
The machine, dubbed the Million Volt Oscillator was installed in the band balcony overlooking the arena. At the top of each hour the lights in the main hall were shut off, and sparks would shoot from the copper ball atop the coil to a matching coil 122 inches away, or to a wand held by an assistant. The chief engineer of the General Electric Company estimated that the discharges were at least 1.3 million volts.
Ovington, who died in 1936, gave the matching Tesla coils to his old electrotherapy colleague Frederick Finch Strong, who in 1937 donated them to Griffith Observatory. The Observatory had room to exhibit only one of the pair. By this time the machine was missing parts, so Observatory staffer Leon Hall restored it with the notable assistance of Hollywood special effects expert Kenneth Strickfaden who designed the special effects for Frankenstein (1931) among many other movies.
Keck Central Rotunda
At the nexus of the original Observatory building, the W.M. Keck Foundation Central Rotunda celebrates the intersection of science and mythology, Earth and sky, and the man whose vision brought the Observatory into being.
Unimaginably vast and continuously changing, the universe has been growing larger for nearly 14 billion years. We are connected to the origin of the universe by the sparkling ribbon of time that reaches from the Big Bang to today, when we observe what the universe is, understand what it is doing, and appreciate how long all of this has been going on. Nearly 2,200 pieces of celestial jewelry form the Observatory timeline, thanks to longtime Friends Of The Observatory board member Kara Knack. The cosmic shapes and designs of the pieces symbolize astronomical objects and our connection with them.
Edge of Space Exhibit
The mezzanine overlooking the Richard and Lois Gunther Depths of Space exhibit gallery provides visitors with an experience that bridges the more familiar Earth-bound orientation toward the universe with a more cosmic perspective informed by the most sophisticated astronomical instruments ever built. The zone showcases samples of the universe that come to Earth from space or that we acquire through space exploration.
Gunther Depths of Space
Space exploration transformed our understanding of the cosmos and our place in it. As we learned more about the sky, our horizons broadened. What we once could detect only with our eyes, we now explore with technology. Today our telescopes and space probes reveal landscapes on other worlds and detect planets around other stars. Our observing tools have extended our vision out to the stars, to the earliest galaxies, and back to nearly the beginning of time. Now, we can clearly see our place in the universe. We can feel at home in the cosmos.
Samuel Oschin Planetarium
Travel to the farthest reaches of the universe and into the microscopic building blocks of life. Live presentations immerse you in the wonder and meaning of the cosmos. With its spectacular Zeiss star projector, digital projection system, state-of-the-art aluminum dome, comfy seats, sound system, and theatrical lighting, the 290-seat Samuel Oschin Planetarium theater is the finest planetarium in the world.
Centered in the Universe
We often imagine ourselves at the center of things. That includes our place in the universe, ever since the first people looked up at the sky. Even as our scientific observation has shown the cosmos does not revolve around us, our ongoing investigations continue to keep us Centered in the Universe.
Water Is Life
Water Is Life was written and produced for Griffith Observatory’s fifth grade school field trip program. Drawing on the fifth grade science content standards, Water Is Life explores where our water in California comes from, and how water on Earth keeps us alive.
Light of the Valkyries
Light of the Valkyries takes us on a voyage of Viking cosmology and explores the true nature of the aurora borealis – the northern lights. The Vikings believed the northern lights were Valkyries, warrior spirits who descended from heaven to take fallen heroes from the battlefield to Valhalla, the palace of the gods.
The largest urban-wilderness municipal park in the United States, Griffith Park is filled with trails, trees, trains, attractions and the Hollywood Sign. Griffith Park is on the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountain range (and Hollywood Hills), just west of the Golden State Freeway (I-5), roughly between Los Feliz Boulevard on the south and the Ventura Freeway (SR 134) on the north.
With over 4,210 acres of both natural chaparral-covered terrain and landscaped parkland and picnic areas, Griffith Park has something for everyone. In addition to Griffith Observatory, the Park hosts the Greek Theatre, three City golf courses, Los Angeles Zoo, Autry National Center, Travel Town Museum, historic Merry-Go-Round, Griffith Park Southern Railroad, L.A. Live Steamers, and much more. The Park offers hiking, bike rentals, pony rides, horseback riding, picnicking, tennis, swimming, soccer, and other ball fields.
Hiking into the rugged hills and sparsely developed areas is perhaps one of the most popular forms of recreation in Griffith Park. Hikers may use the entire 53-mile network of trails, fire roads, and bridle paths. One of the most rewarding hikes in the park is the trail leading from the Observatory parking lot to the summit of Mount Hollywood, the highest peak of the park, which affords spectacular views of the entire Los Angeles Basin. Hikers should approach the park with caution; Griffith Park is a wilderness area with wild quail, rodents, foxes, coyotes, rattlesnakes, and deer.
Griffith Observatory is owned and operated by the City of Los Angeles as a public service through its Department of Recreation and Parks. All Observatory and Department staff members are employees of the City of Los Angeles and are among the public employees providing services its more than four million residents.
Griffith Observatory Foundation
Griffith Observatory Foundation was chartered in 1978 as Friends Of The Observatory. It was founded by Debra Griffith and Harold Griffith (the grandson of the observatory’s benefactor) with Dr. E.C. Krupp (the current Observatory Director) and a small group of dedicated partners. The foundation supports the observatory in its mission of public astronomy and advocated the restoration and expansion of the observatory. The foundation continues to promote the observatory as an agent of science literacy, education, and experiential astronomy.