AboutObservatory HistoryHistory (1896 – 2002)

A History of Griffith Observatory


Exploring Griffith Observatory’s past starts with namesake Griffith J. Griffith, whose plan for a public observatory was as visionary as it was audacious.

From Griffith’s bequest in 1919 to the Observatory’s dedication on May 14, 1935, the story shifts to the astronomers, architects, and public leaders who made his vision to reality. From 1935 – 2002, the Observatory welcomed 70 million visitors and became the world’s leader in public astronomy, a story told in the context of the building’s four Directors.

Griffith Observatory’s unique architecture and setting, compelling programmatic offerings, and cinematic exposure have made it one of the most famous and visited landmarks in southern California. Tens of millions have come to walk the inside of the building, view the live planetarium shows, or simply gaze out towards the coast and the heavens. This cultural and scientific icon owes its existence to the dream of one man, Griffith Jenkins Griffith, and to the dedicated scientists and public servants who worked to fulfill his vision of making astronomy and observation accessible to all.

(Edited from an article by Christopher Hansen and Melanie Wang, Pomona College and Anthony Cook, Griffith Observatory)

A Great City Needs a Great Park

The land on which Griffith Observatory sits was once a part of a Spanish settlement known as Rancho Los Felis. The Spanish Governor of California bequeathed it to Corporal Vincente Felis in the 1770s. The land stayed in the Felis family for over a century, being subdivided through generations, until Griffith, a wealthy mining speculator, purchased what remained of the rancho in 1882.

Griffith J. Griffith was born in Wales in 1850 and came to America as a teenager. He worked as a journalist and mining advisor before making his fortune in Mexican silver mines and, subsequently, southern California real estate. He moved to Los Angeles after purchasing the rancho and spent the rest of his life there. Griffith enjoyed being referred to as “Colonel” Griffith, though it seems he was never officially commissioned as an officer (nor is it clear that he even served in the military).

During a tour abroad, Griffith had discovered the great public parks of Europe and decided that his home, Los Angeles, would need a “Great Park” for the public in order to become a great city. On December 16, 1896, he donated 3,015 acres of Rancho Los Felis to the City of Los Angeles in order to create a public park in his name. “It must be made a place of rest and relaxation for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people,” Griffith said on that occasion. “I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happy, cleaner, and finer city. I wish to pay my debt of duty in this way to the community in which I have prospered.” Griffith Park became the largest urban park in the U.S. with wilderness areas. The City Council proclamation accepting Griffith’s gift hangs (along with a portrait commissioned after his death) in the W.M. Keck Foundation Central Rotunda inside Griffith Observatory.

Griffith’s Transforming Vision

Griffith J Griffith

Griffith J. Griffith was introduced to astronomy through the Astronomical Section of the Southern California Academy of Sciences. He was also impressed by his visits to the new research observatory established at Mount Wilson in 1904. He believed that an individual gained an enlightened perspective when looking at the skies. His reaction after looking through the 60-inch telescope at Mount Wilson – then the largest in the world – was described by John Anson Ford: “The experience moved him profoundly – a distant, heavenly body suddenly being brought so close and made so real!” Ford quotes Griffith as saying “Man’s sense of values ought to be revised. If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would change the world!”

Griffith’s experience on Mount Wilson focused his desire to make science more accessible to the public. On December 12, 1912, he offered the City of Los Angeles $100,000 for an observatory to be built on the top of Mount Hollywood to be fully owned and operated by the City of Los Angeles. Griffith’s plan for the observatory would include an astronomical telescope open to free viewing, a Hall of Science designed to bring the public into contact with exhibits about the physical sciences, and a motion picture theater which would show educational films about science and other subjects. This last aspect of the plan would eventually evolve into the planetarium, a technology not invented until the 1920s.

The City Council accepted Griffith’s gift and appointed him head of a three-person Trust committee to supervise the construction of a public observatory and a greek theatre performing arts facility, which Griffith promised to the city the following year. Bogged down by further political debate, the project continued to be delayed. In 1916, with his health failing, Griffith realized that his vision of a public observatory would not be realized in his lifetime. He drafted a will containing bequests for a public observatory and a greek theatre, along with detailed specifications regarding the nature of the observatory, its location, and programmatic offerings. Griffith died on July 6, 1919.

A Dream Realized

Foucault Pendulum illustration

Griffith’s dream finally began to become reality in the spring of 1930, as the Griffith Trust (the governing board for the expenditures from the Griffith estate) enlisted some of the leading astronomers and scientists of the day as the core team planning the construction of Griffith Observatory. George Ellery Hale, who had overseen the creation of the great telescopes at Yerkes, Mount Wilson, and Palomar Observatories, used his knowledge to steer the overall design. Caltech physicist Edward Kurth drew up the preliminary plans and later guided the construction of the building. Russell W. Porter, the “Patron Saint” of the amateur telescope-making movement, was an invaluable aide to Kurth. In May of 1931 the Griffith Trust and Los Angeles Park Commissioners selected architects John C. Austin and Frederick M. Ashley to oversee the final plans for the new observatory building. Austin and Ashley hired Kurth to direct the project with Porter as consultant.

Caltech and Mount Wilson engineers drew up plans for the Observatory’s fundamental exhibits: a Foucault Pendulum, a 38-foot-diameter model of a section of the Moon sculpted by artist Roger Hayward, and a “three-in-one” coelostat (three tracking mirrors on one mount to feed three separate solar telescopes) so that the public could study the Sun in the Hall of Science. The Trust judged the 12-inch Zeiss refracting telescope as the best commercially available instrument of its kind and selected it to be used as the public telescope. A 75-foot-wide theater –one of the largest in the world — was designed to hold a Zeiss planetarium projector. The planetarium had been invented in 1923, four years after Griffith’s death, and his family agreed with the Trustees that it more fully honored his intent than the originally planned cinematic theater. The Observatory’s planetarium was the third to be completed in the United States.

Groundbreaking for Griffith Observatory occurred on June 20, 1933, with the William Simpson Construction Company as the builder. While the building quickly took shape, Edward Kurth was tragically killed in a car accident in February 1934. The Griffith Trust brought in physicist Rudolph Langer to oversee the completion of the building, and Philip Fox, Director of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, whose advice had been sought in the earliest phases of planning, was now increasingly involved with designing exhibits for the Hall of Science.

Griffith Observatory was shaped not only by the minds of scientists, but also by the times in which it was built. A major earthquake in Long Beach in March 1933 — just as construction plans were being finalized — led the architects to abandon the planned terra cotta exterior in favor of strengthening and thickening the building’s concrete walls. Lower-than-usual prices caused by the Great Depression enabled the selection of the finest materials of the day for the interior walls, floors, and finishes, making the building both beautiful and durable. And a depression-era Federal public works program employed six sculptors to create a public sculpture at Griffith Observatory. The resulting Astronomers Monument, dedicated in November 1934, was hailed as one of the most important pieces of art to be completed by the program.

The dedication and formal opening of Griffith Observatory took place amid much fanfare on May 14, 1935. On that day, the Griffith Trust transferred ownership of the building to the City of Los Angeles; the City’s Department of Recreation and Parks (called the Department of Parks at the time of the transfer) has operated the facility ever since. From the moment the Observatory was opened to the public, those who served as full-time and part-time staff worked daily to fulfill the original vision of the Griffith Observatory as an educational and inspirational resource for all of society.

Directors of Griffith Observatory

Dr. Dinsmore Alter (1935 – 1958)

Dr. Dinsmore ALter

Griffith Observatory’s first Director, Dr. Dinsmore Alter, recognized the role the Observatory could play in dispelling the public’s misconceptions about the natural world. These ranged from simple fear of the dark to the belief that celestial events were omens of disaster to confusion between astrology and astronomy. A series of exhibits were therefore created to explain basic sky phenomena with subjects that changed each month. Some titles of early planetarium productions included “Sky of a Winter Evening,” “The Moon, Our Nearest Neighbor,” “Worlds of the Solar Family,” “Eclipses,” and “Trip to the North Pole.” In 1937, Dr. Alter inaugurated the Griffith Observer, which has been published monthly without interruption to the present.

Soon after opening, the Observatory became one of the first such facilities to host regular school visits, beginning a rite of passage for many decades of school children in Los Angeles. When the Observatory closed in 2002 for renovation, 50,000 school children a year were visiting annually for such programs.

By the time the U.S. entered World War II, the Observatory had matured into a popular public monument and tourist attraction. The war would drastically change the activities of the Observatory along with the rest of Los Angeles. Dr. Alter, a colonel, and many other employees of the Observatory were called into service in early 1942, and Dr. Clarence Cleminshaw took over as Acting Director. Soldiers were garrisoned in Griffith Park, and a large air raid siren was set up adjacent to the Observatory. The planetarium did its part by training several squadrons of naval aviators to navigate by the stars.

The Observatory’s wartime schedule was limited to daytime to decrease nighttime traffic for fear that enemy ships and planes could use lighting to target the city. Despite the war, demand to see planetarium shows did not decrease. In fact, the limited schedule caused some shows to sell out as far as ten weeks in advance. Planetarium shows during the war were preceded by 15-minute presentations about the Pacific war zone, which took viewers from Los Angeles to Hawaii and then on to Japan and back to Los Angeles

Upon Alter’s return after World War II, he was cited by the press as believing that a trip to the moon would be possible within the next 100 years. His speculation that space travel was becoming a more realistic prospect had a great effect upon the focus of the Observatory, and planetarium shows changed from an instructional series focused on the basic tenets of astronomy to a dramatically new type of planetarium show, the first of which was called “A Trip To The Moon.” With this new format, Alter introduced a concept that would dominate the Observatory’s focus for the coming decade: space travel.

The efforts of Dr. Alter and his associates also served to legitimize the concept of space exploration by helping to educate and energize an entire generation of visitors. In fact, the presence and favorable reaction of the American Astronomical Society at the premiere of “A Trip to the Moon” marked one of the first times such a distinguished and professional group acknowledged the realistic possibility of traveling into space.

In 1958, at the age of 70, Dr. Alter retired after 23 years as Director of Griffith Observatory. He passed away in June 1968, just about a year before Apollo 11 would validate his prophetic vision of space exploration.

Dr. Clarence Cleminshaw (1958 – 1969)

Clarence Cleminshaw

While Dr. Alter dreamed of space travel, Dr. Clarence Cleminshaw, the next Director of Griffith Observatory, became a part of the national aerospace program by training 26 astronauts of the Apollo Space Program on the subjects of star identification and celestial navigation. Cleminshaw had already served as Alter’s deputy for more than 20 years and was well acquainted with the Observatory.

In addition to perpetuating Alter’s dream, Cleminshaw would oversee the first renovation and modernization of the Observatory. In 1960, the white concrete structure below the copper domes was repaired and repainted, a huge task which required extensive scaffolding under the large dome. That same year a new console was added in the planetarium, in anticipation of the arrival of a new Zeiss Mark IV planetarium projector in 1964 to replace the original Zeiss Mark II projector (which was showing signs of wear). This new projector created sharper images and was much quieter in operation. With the air pollution nearing its worst in the Los Angeles basin, the projector enabled spectators to view more than 4,000 stars in all their pristine glory, as opposed to the handful that could be seen in the light-polluted, smoggy skies above the city. Dr. Cleminshaw retired in 1969 after 33 years of service to the Observatory and passed away in 1985.

Dr. William J. Kaufmann III (1969 – 1974)

Dr. William J. Kaufmann III

In 1969, 27-year- old Dr. William J. Kaufmann III became the youngest Director at any major observatory in the United States. His youth and vitality fueled his efforts to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public to allow everyone to share in the advances of astronomy.

Under Kaufmann’s direction, Griffith Observatory would host a lunar exhibit, showcasing lunar rocks that allowed visitors to see up-close a piece of the celestial object which had been viewed countless times through the Observatory’s telescopes. The exhibits in the Hall of Science reflected the public’s interest in the space program, with an exhibit of a “spacemobile” and models of other spacecraft.

The new information about the moon learned by Apollo 11 and 12 also led to a new planetarium show entitled “New Discoveries from the Moon,” which not only presented data but also dealt with the practical issue of whether these efforts were worth their lofty price tags.

In 1973, the first Laserium show in the U.S. was presented in the Observatory’s planetarium theater. This laser-light program, set initially to classical music and later to songs from artists such as Pink Floyd, proved to be instantly popular. These exhibitions of modern laser light technology were conducted by a “laser-artist” (Laserist for short) with computer-programmed material to create eye-catching images. Kaufmann’s goal to reach out to the public extended beyond theatrics, and in 1972 the Observatory premiered its first planetarium show in Spanish. Dr. Kaufmann left the Observatory in 1974 to pursue other interests and passed away in 1995.

Dr. E. C. Krupp (1974 – present)

Dr. E. C. Krupp

Dr. E. C. Krupp became the Acting Director of Griffith Observatory in 1974 upon Dr. Kaufmann’s departure (the “Acting” designation was dropped in 1976). Krupp had been hired in 1970 as a Planetarium Lecturer and been appointed Observatory Curator in 1972. Little older than Kaufmann at the time of his appointment, Krupp embraced both the history of the Observatory and its need to share the growing tide of knowledge being generated by large telescopes and the space program.

Krupp undertook an effort to update some of the Hall of Science exhibits to reflect these discoveries. He oversaw development of new exhibits on galaxies, radio astronomy, and cosmic rays. Krupp also decided to extend the Observatory’s curriculum to include his own personal passion for archaeoastronomy by creating planetarium shows such as “Stonehenge and Ancient Astronomy” and “In Search of Ancient Astronomers.”

Like Dr. Alter many years before, Krupp worked actively to dispel the public’s superstition of celestial events. It was clear that irrational fears of the sky had not disappeared with time when, in 1982, nine planets of the solar system grouped together loosely on one side of the sun, heralding, according to the purveyors of doom, a phenomenon known as the “Jupiter Effect.” The Observatory again had the responsibility of reassuring the public, in this instance, that the Jupiter Effect would not trigger the Great California Earthquake, as was pseudo-scientifically forecast.

Within a few years of his appointment as Director, Krupp recognized that the 43-year-old Observatory was showing its age. He began to develop a long-term strategy for the renovation and renewal of the facility. He worked closely with Debra Griffith, the wife of Griffith J. Griffith’s grandson Harold, in 1978 to found the non-profit Friends Of The Observatory (FOTO). They saw FOTO as a means for the public to support directly the improvement of the Observatory.

Krupp also believed the Observatory needed to embrace the latest technologies to serve better its audience. He oversaw introduction of the Observatory’s first personal computers and first Internet connection and development of the first website in the City of Los Angeles.

The 1980s and 1990s brought unprecedented crowds to the Observatory. A series of major astronomical events such Halley’s Comet in 1986 and the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter in 1994 raised the Observatory’s national and international profile even further. The copper domes of the Observatory were cleaned back to a “penny finish” in 1984, a year before the building celebrated its 50th anniversary. And in 1990, a consulting firm hired by the City completed a Master Plan for the renovation and expansion of Griffith Observatory. Thus began the road to a project that would fundamentally transform the Observatory.