An L.A. Sunset: Griffith Observatory

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?

Hollywood Sign

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.

Entrance to the Griffith Observatory

The Solar System Lawn Model shows the relative size of the orbits of the planets (and Pluto) around the Sun. The center of the solar system is located in front of the Observatory’s North Doors.

The Solar System Lawn Model: Stand in the center of the solar system in front of the Observatory’s North Doors and appreciate the relative size of the orbits of the planets (and Pluto) rotating around you.

the ceiling inside the Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

Entrance to the building is dazzling thanks to the Hugo Ballin Murals: Overhead are celestial myths, with Atlas, planet-gods, and the 12 constellations of the zodiac. Wall murals celebrate the “Advancement of Science from Remote Periods to Present Times” (my favorite is on time, starring an Aztec priest, Emperor Yao of China, and Ulugh Bergh, grandson of Tamerlane and avid sky-gazer).

Swinging from the mythical heavens is the Foucault Pendulum, an elegant  demonstration of our planet’s rotation.

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.

Griffith Observatory telescope

Zeiss Telescope is open to the public, Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

The line to look through the Zeiss Telescope moved quickly, and the view was worth the wait.

Meanwhile, the world underneath was basking in the day’s last rays. L.A. at dusk is a mesmerizing view: vast, hazy, relentless.

View of Los Angeles at sunset from Griffith Observatory

That sunset is one of my all-time favorites, not far behind the stunning views from Mauna Kea and the diving pelicans in Old San Juan.

Sunset at Griffith Observatory, Los Angeles

Soon, the Observatory and the city beneath lit up for the night.

The sun sets over Los Angeles and the Griffith Observatory

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.

View of Los Angeles from Griffith Observatory

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6 thoughts on “An L.A. Sunset: Griffith Observatory

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