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Expanding Public Space to Improve the Visitor Experience

The expanded Griffith Observatory has more than twice the public space of the original building. Unlike most institutions that undergo renovation, however, this expansion was not intended to increase attendance. With free admission and more than a million visitors annually, the Observatory did not have a need to attract more people. Instead, City leaders and Friends Of The Observatory officials wanted to expand the building to enable it to serve better each Observatory visitor.

The Reason to Expand

By the late 1990s, when planning for the renovation project began in earnest, the Observatory had reached and exceeded its capacity. On many weekends, the building was so crowded with visitors that it was difficult to see the exhibits or take time to reflect on the experience. Exhibition space was actually quite limited, and this hampered the Observatory's ability to share the wealth of amazing new discoveries in astronomy. The gift shop consisted of a 99-square-foot alcove, and the book counter was a long case squeezed into the central rotunda. The building had too few restrooms and too little room to sit down, rest, and reflect. The Observatory wanted to expand the space available for people and exhibits to enable visitors to immerse themselves more comfortably in cosmic perspective.

Limits to Expansion

One of the most spectacular features of the Observatory is its location. The building occupies the finest piece of public observatory real estate in the world. Of course, that also makes it visible from literally all sides, particularly to those on the front lawn and to the millions of people who look up from the urban basin below Mount Hollywood. Maintaining the visual perspective of a building regarded as a beloved icon of Los Angeles was a key project objective.

The City selected Pfeiffer Partners, Inc., known for its work on landmark projects across the country, to serve as the lead architect for the renovation and expansion project. In addition to leading the planning process, Pfeiffer Partners, Inc., design work included a particular focus on the areas to be transformed programmatically in the existing building (such as the planetarium) and all those areas to be added to the building through expansion. Led by Norman Pfeiffer and Stephen Johnson, the Pfeiffer team examined the original architectural intent and approach, reviewed concepts from the 1990 Master Plan, and, working in concert with associate architects Levin & Associates Architects, formulated a plan to renovate and expand the building.

These plans left the appearance of the north side of the building essentially unaffected by the expansion. The view for arriving visitors is nearly identical to the view prior to expansion except for the addition of an oval-shaped stone-clad elevator on the far west side of the grounds. The west edge of the site includes a new terrace and the stairway entrance to the new Robert J. and Suzanne Gottlieb Transit Corridor, the Observatory's new monumental public instrument. Just as the form and shape of the original structure, with its telescope and planetarium domes, reflect the building's purpose, the new architecture of the project's western edge creates a place for observation and discovery. The corridor's contemporary glass walls, with ceramic frit in key locations, are held up by bronze stanchions with details reflecting those on the original building.

From the south side, the addition of a small structure and terrace on the southeast was designed to match an existing, but substantially modified, terrace on the southwest side and to give the building an architectural symmetry that most people probably assumed was always there. These additions to the south are designed as background elements in the same style as the original building but with distinguishing details that define them clearly as new components to the project. Pfeiffer Partners, Inc., worked closely with historic groups and the Observatory to assure that all visible additions were in keeping with both the historic context of the project as well as the scientific spirit of the Observatory.

Engineering Expansion

In 2002, the Department of Recreation and Parks released the Observatory renovation and expansion construction project for competitive bid. Three companies expressed interest, and in late 2002, the Department selected S.J. Amoroso Construction as the general construction contractor for the project (see firm description, below). Its work was managed by the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering. On October 30, 2002, the Governor of California, Mayor of Los Angeles, and other dignitaries attended groundbreaking for the Observatory's renewal. Amoroso began work on the site within days.

Work on expanding the building began in January 2003, when workers removed the front lawn and sidewalks and began digging. They ultimately excavated 30,000 cubic yards of dirt from the site and produced a hole measuring 100 feet across, 240 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. The excavation made room for the new public space under the front lawn and along the west slope. Construction of the exterior shell of that space was completed in late summer 2004, followed by careful sealing and waterproofing, as well as extensive work on the interior finishes. Amoroso restored the lawn in December 2005.

Features of Expansion

The expansion of the building accomplishe several important objectives toward the goal of improving the visitor experience.

Increased Public Space for Visitors. Primarily by excavating under a portion of the front lawn and west terrace, the Observatory's interior space was increased by 39,600 square feet, from 27,300 square feet to 66,900 square feet. Most of this added area is public space, in the form of a large, multi-level exhibit gallery, a 200-seat presentation theater, a new observing instrument, a classroom, and other support areas.

The Richard and Lois Gunther Depths of Space exhibit gallery illustrates the recent transformation of human perspective that began when people first ventured into space. No longer is observation and understanding of the sky bonded to the ground and framed by the horizon. This dramatic area is filled with exhibits like The Big Picture that are as monumental and unique as the ideas they illustrate.

The Leonard Nimoy Event Horizon theater is a 200-seat multi-media auditorium that significantly broadens Griffith Observatory's programming and educational capabilities. In conjunction with the classroom in the adjacent Boeing Education Center, the theater enhances the Observatory's ability to sponsor robust educational activities, from live transmissions of space events to astronomical training for area teachers. Housed in a circular drum clad in perforated metal panels, its location and detailing provide visual connections to the Samuel Oschin Planetarium on the main level of the building. Architecturally, the theater is the visual anchor of the lower level exhibit area.

Visitors move from the historic building to this newly expanded space via the curving Cosmic Connection, a walkway that features a 150-foot timeline of the universe, lined with celestial jewelry that reminds us of the wonder of cosmos and our connection to it. The walkway leads to The Edge of Space, a mezzanine exhibit area featuring the Observatory's spectacular meteorite collection, an Apollo Moon sample, and the first glimpses of the exhibits on the lower floor of the new Gunther Depths of Space exhibit gallery. The architectural design of these areas is a direct reflection of the shape and detailing of the exterior of the historic building above and aid in visitor orientation at these lower levels.

Increased Public Services. A portion of the additional space in the west part of the expansion provides public services to make a visit more satisfying. The Café at the End of the Universe replaces the old snack bar in the parking lot. The location of the café makes it easier for visitors to take a break and enjoy refreshments without leaving the building. The Department selected world-famous Wolfgang Puck Catering to operate the café, which provides creative and reasonably priced fare for visitors. Seating is available both inside the café and on the exterior terrace facing the western horizon and its spectacular views of the Pacific Ocean.

For those interested in purchasing a souvenir, astronomically themed book, or other cosmic item, the Stellar Emporium gift shop is a significant improvement over previous Observatory offerings. The Department selected Event Network, Inc., to operate the facility.

The expanded space also includes three sets of new restrooms, and another restroom facility is located adjacent to the visitor parking lot.

Increased Ease of Access to the Building. The expansion adds four new public entrances to the Observatory, in addition to the original front doors and the door from the upper West Observation Terrace into the Ahmanson Hall of the Sky added in the 1980s. These new access points are:

  • A new door into the Hall of the Eye from East Terrace
  • The new elevator to the roof from the W.M. Keck Foundation Central Rotunda
  • The new elevator from lawn into the Gunther Depths of Space exhibit gallery
  • A new door from the Gottlieb Transit Corridor into the Gunther Depths of Space

These new entrances make the building much easier to enter and exit. They are also a part of a comprehensive and coordinated effort to make all areas of the building more accessible to all visitors, including those who cannot climb stairs. Ramps around the sides of the building enable such visitors to circle the building and enjoy the view from the building's south promenade (outside the Samuel Oschin Planetarium) for the first time. The elevator from W.M. Keck Foundation Central Rotunda also means that those in wheelchairs can now visit the Observatory's roof.

The construction contractor for the project was S.J. Amoroso Construction, whose work was overseen by the Los Angeles Bureau of Engineering. For more about the firm, click here.