Renovation of Griffith Observatory

After nearly 67 years of continuous use and 70 million visitors, Griffith Observatory was nearly loved to death by the very public it served. When the building closed in January 2002, it was very much in need of renewal. As part of the renovation and expansion project, all elements of the building were restored to their original grandeur and improved for the modern level of public use.

Historical Background

The original building, a 27,000-square-foot cast-in-place concrete structure, is typically identified as Art Deco with both Moderne and Modified Greek influences and a Beaux-Arts influenced plan. Because the building was built during the Great Depression, when prices for many goods and labor plunged, the funds from the Griffith Trust enabled the architects to select both elegant and durable materials for the Observatory. These selections contributed substantially to the building’s longevity and guided both the architects and exhibit designers in their selection of materials during the renovation and expansion project.

The building exterior reflects a wide range of detail, including the Greek key pattern cast directly into the concrete, the elegant bronze and glass on the main entrance doors, the decorative metal window grilles, the copper-covered domes, and the federal Public Works of Art Project-funded concrete sculpture on the front lawn, the Astronomers Monument. The interior of the Observatory was designed with the finest materials of the day, including travertine, marble, ornate wood and bronze metalwork, and attractive signage. The design of the public spaces, particularly the alcoves, was clearly intended to convey a sense of monumentality and importance, consistent with the “cosmic” topics presented.

The Need for Renovation

The “historic fabric” of the interior, including the travertine walls and marble and rubber flooring, remained generally intact and in sound condition but clearly was in need of remedial work and cleaning after many decades of extensive use. Structural calculations did not indicate any overall deficiencies in the primary structure of the Observatory building. The building suffered only minimal damage in the 1994 Northridge earthquake, primarily involving the disengagement of the suspended interior rotunda mural ceiling from the adjacent supporting structure. A building code analysis revealed that the Observatory did not meet current codes for fire/life safety and disabled access. Building upgrades to meet code were developed within the framework of the State Historic Building Code.

Planning the Work

Levin & Associates Architects, an award-winning architectural and urban design firm known nationwide for its renovations and restorations, was selected by the City to lead the exterior and interior restoration and renovation design for the existing 1935 historic building. Pfeiffer Partners, internationally recognized for their work with landmark structures, was selected as the Executive and Design Architect for the overall project, including the planetarium, interior building renovations, new building expansion, and outdoor public spaces.

After completing a detailed survey of the Observatory, to establish the character-defining features, the design team developed a list of preservation goals and objectives for this landmark project. It researched the history of the building’s design and construction, documented the existing conditions of the building, and developed a database of the Observatory’s historic and cultural resources. Working with Pfeiffer Partners, Inc., Brenda Levin and her team ensured that all the improvements made to the building — including the expansion under the front lawn and west terrace, which more than doubled the interior space — preserved the original building’s key architectural and historical elements.

Exterior Preservation and Restoration

Renovation work began in late 2002, when interior historic elements were catalogued, packed, and removed or protected in place prior to the start of work on the building and underground expansion.

Concrete Walls

Consistent with other similar architecture of the day, the Observatory’s concrete walls were left unpainted in the 1930s and 1940s. Research shows the building was first painted a light gray in the 1950s, followed by an additional coat of gray and two subsequent coats of the now-familiar white paint. Restoration work began in January 2003, when the building was “shrink-wrapped” in white plastic in order to remove the exterior lead-based paint in preparation for the complete restoration of the exterior concrete surface. The paint was removed using a chemically impregnated fibrous paper that removes the existing paint without damaging the underlying concrete surface or expelling hazardous materials into the air. Exposed reinforcing steel was treated with a rust-inhibiting coating, spalls and holes were repaired, and concrete surfaces were finished with a cementitious parge coat to fill in hairline cracks and pinpoint holes. A “warm white” elastomeric coating was applied in 2004 and 2005. This coating will actually allow the concrete to “breathe” and protect it far more effectively than when it was painted.

Planetarium (Exterior) Dome

The original copper sheathing that covered the planetarium dome was cleaned to remove iron oxides in 1984 (returning it briefly to a penny-colored appearance), though no attempts were made to repair joint or copper sheet failure or the dome’s underlying concrete structure. Workers removed this copper sheathing from the dome in fall 2003 to begin the restoration work. They patched and repaired the concrete and applied a new waterproofing membrane to the dome. In April 2004, they finished installing new copper sheathing and gutters designed to match the dome’s original appearance. Though the copper initially looked like a shiny penny, it has already patinated to the brownish color it will have for roughly 15-20 years before turning green. No effort was made to prevent or accelerate this patination process.

Telescope Domes

Unlike the planetarium dome, the copper panels on the Zeiss telescope (east) and solar telescope (west) domes are actually fastened with rivets to a steel framework. Removing them for treatment was not possible. Like the main dome, they were cleaned but not repaired in 1984. To restore them, workers patched visible holes and repaired deformations. They also installed new drive mechanisms and installed seals on the sliding shutters and rotating domes. The copper was then cleaned using a mild detergent and water. No effort was made to change the current pace of patination, which is showing hints of green.

Central Octagonal Cupola

Prior to the current project, the copper panels covering the Central Rotunda had never been cleaned or repaired; the bright green color reflects 71 years of patination. Restoration work involved repairing and patching the copper and then cleaning it with the same mild solution used on the telescope domes. A number of the decorative copper wall panels were removed, repaired, and reinstalled.

Roof Terrace / Exterior Steps / Promenade Walkway

The Observatory’s roof terraces and promenade (the walkway around the south side of the Samuel Oschin Planetarium) had long been the source of dozens of leaks into the building. To remedy water infiltration, workers removed the concrete deck covering the roof, promenade walkways, and stairs, applied a new waterproof membrane, and installed new concrete paving and precast concrete steps.

Window Grilles

The decorative iron grilles, which contribute to the formality of the façade design, were repaired, repainted, and reinstalled.

Interior Preservation and Restoration

Hugo Ballin Murals

One of the most meticulous restoration efforts involved the Ballin murals located in the W. M. Keck Foundation Central Rotunda. Painted by Hugo Ballin in 1934, the murals cover both the vaulted rotunda ceiling and the upper walls. The Ballin ceiling murals celebrate classical celestial mythology and feature an image of Atlas holding the sphere of the sky on his shoulders with the 12 constellations of the zodiac. The wall murals feature eight panels depicting the Advancement of Science from remote to the present times. The decorative ceilings were cleaned carefully and gently, and in-painting was done over small areas of loss. Additionally, some of the canvas murals were re-adhered to the plaster ceiling. The end results are murals that have been transformed once again into spectacular works of art.

Heinsbergen Mural

Covering the entire ceiling in the South Gallery, the mural painted by A. B. Heinsbergen, which depicts the Sun with rays emanating outward, was also restored to its original brilliance.

Interior Walls and Floors

Repairing and renovating the travertine walls and marble floors was completed through painstaking work. Cracks were repaired with original stone material ground up and mixed with an epoxy binder to ensure a close match. Additionally, losses were filled with stone pieces salvaged from other areas or previously stored by the Observatory. The surfaces received a thorough cleaning, restoring the walls and floors to their original luster.

Interior Finishes

Bronze elements throughout the building, including all wall moldings, ornaments, lighting fixtures, and vent grilles, were removed, cleaned, and given wax finishes before being reinstalled.

Improving the Building

In addition to the preservation and restoration efforts, substantial work went into improving the Observatory building to make it better able to serve its large base of visitors. Pfeiffer Partners, Inc., led this design work and coordinated efforts of the special design consultants on the development of the Samuel Oschin Planetarium.


Griffith Observatory’s planetarium theater was the third built in the U.S. (after Chicago and Philadelphia) and one of the largest (75-feet diameter) in the world. After more than a hundred different shows and 13 million visits over nearly 67 years, the planetarium was ready to step into the 21st century. The design called for the theater to be transformed into the Samuel Oschin Planetarium, a state-of-the-art, immersive planetarium environment.

This transformation meant removing literally everything in the old theater. Before construction even began, staff and movers removed the Zeiss Mark IV planetarium projector, later to be returned to the building as an exhibit in the Gunther Depths of Space. Installed in 1964, the projector was already well into its third lifetime based on the original specifications. In the 1990s, the staff had to customize streetlight bulbs for use in the projector because the original bulbs were no longer made by Zeiss. The staff also removed the old sound system, control panel, slide projectors, and other equipment.

Once construction began, workers removed the 600 seats, installed in 1964. Often called the “most uncomfortable seats in the Milky Way Galaxy,” they featured wooden headrests, metal seat backs, fraying knit cushions, and protruding metal springs. The staff was confident that visitors were unlikely to miss them. Then came demolition of the interior projection dome. At 75 feet in diameter, the original plaster dome was one of the largest in the world. When developed, it was quite a marvel, but the hard, curving surface played havoc with sound and, over time, the dome showed signs of age. Once the dome debris was removed, the theater was ready for its close-up. Over the next three years, workers installed a new perforated aluminum dome, star projector, digital laser projection system, seats, sound, control system, and lighting. New interior finishes, including the cork flooring with compass rose design, enhance the experience of visitors. The resulting 300-seat Samuel Oschin Planetarium theater is the finest planetarium in the world.


In one of the significant changes to the building during renovation, the Observatory’s offices were consolidated downstairs under the Samuel Oschin Planetarium. The Pfeiffer Partners, Inc., design completely transformed this space, formerly occupied by the maintenance and shop staff, into modern, efficient offices for the Observatory’s production and administrative staff. The rooms command impressive views to the south. The offices and support spaces on the main level were transformed to become the restored library and study and to provide space for the new main stairway, other new walkways for disabled access, and audio-visual control rooms.


A significant effort was undertaken to make the building more accessible and easier to navigate. One of the most notable additions is Gravity’s Staircase, a major new sky-lit stairway leading from the existing building (off the South Gallery) down to the new administrative and exhibit levels below. An elevator was added in the W.M. Keck Foundation Central Rotunda to take visitors to both the lower administrative level and, for the first time, directly from inside the building to the roof terrace. A gently ramped hallway was installed to enable visitors in wheelchairs to travel from the W.M. Keck Foundation Central Rotunda to the Samuel Oschin Planetarium. In the past, guides had to set steep wooden ramps against the stairs and push visitors up into the South Gallery.