I first saw Griffith Observatory as we pushed our way through the wall of Los Angeles traffic: It looks down on the city from the slopes of Mount Hollywood. Climbing up there was a must. The observatory is a spectacular public space, built expressly to bring the heavens to the unwashed masses. Come here on a clear night and enjoy a breathtaking sunset, peer through two historic massive telescopes, and feast on one of the best views of the Hollywood Sign. Plus Leonard Nimoy loved it here. How could we resist?
The Observatory is the brainchild of Griffith J. Griffith, a wealthy mining speculator from Wales and a terrible person. In addition to being universally disliked — an “egomaniac,” scoffed Angelenos at the time — he shot his wife in the head, leading to one of the fastest divorces in L.A. history (four minutes; Christina Griffith survived but was left blind and disfigured by the ordeal). In 1896, years before the scandal, Mr. Griffith donated over 3,000 acres to his adopted hometown “for a place of rest and relaxation for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people.” This became Griffith Park, one of the largest urban parks on the continent.
Later on, he gave a fortune for a public observatory, a hall of science, and a large open-air theater, which were eventually built on the donated land years after his death, when the story of the shooting faded in memory. The Observatory’s construction began in 1933 under Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration — hence its grand structure: Art Deco, with a dash of Greek Revival, Beaux-Arts, and Moderne.
The concept of public astronomy came to Griffith on Mount Wilson, then home to the world’s largest operating telescope: “Man’s sense of values ought to be revised. If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would change the world!” So here we are. On the night of our visit, like Galileo four hundred years before me, I looked at Jupiter and its largest moons. “Ambition,” Griffith wrote of his idea, “must have broad spaces and mighty distances.” I did feel both humbled and inspired by the experience.
Meanwhile, the world underneath was basking in the day’s last rays. L.A. at dusk is a mesmerizing view: vast, hazy, relentless.
Soon, the Observatory and the city beneath lit up for the night.
L.A. is like an ocean–it stretches out as far as eye can see. Then the night fell. Ten million lives flickered before us. It was time to go home.
Some things to know:
- Parking is free but competitive at sunset, so come early. We had to park a ways off along the road leading up to the Observatory. Bring a flashlight — the way back in complete darkness was an adventure (a cheerful crowd was leaving the Observatory with us, so it felt safe to me).
- Don’t miss the Observatory’s Weekly Sky Report, Calendar of Events, and Helpful Guidelines. Grounds and parking are usually open when Griffith Park is open: sunrise to 10 pm.
- Hungry? Wolfgang Puck’s Cafe at the End of the Universe is open until 9 pm (the hot entree counter closes at 7 pm)
Also in Los Angeles:
- Books and Blooms at the Huntington Library
- Holding Hands with Gregory Peck: Grauman’s Chinese Theatre