Griffith Park: The Observatory

In this installment we begin a series of occasional posts about the attractions of Griffith Park. 

Since it was established in the mid-1930s, generations of Angelenos and tourists have come to Griffith Observatory to watch planetarium shows, look through the Zeiss 12-inch refracting telescope, and enjoy the views of the L.A. Basin.   In 1896 Col. Griffith J. Griffith, donated over 3000 acres (1291.9 ha) for the city park that bears his name, and in 1919 he bequeathed additional funding to the City for the construction of an observatory, planetarium, and Greek styled theater.

The Observatory Building

First, though, let's take a look at the building, which is a fine example of the Art Deco style varied with elements of Federal neoclassicism, and even touches of California Spanish style.  

Approaching Griffith Observatory

 By their nature, nearly all astronomical observatories are at the tops of long winding roads, and this is no exception. Situated as it is on the hilltop, the building's white color suggests a classical acropolis in a way that can't be coincidental.  Prior to the second World War, an echo of inspiration from the classics was standard for the buildings that housed schools, museums, and similar institutions like this Observatory.  Ancient Greece was considered to be the font  and origin of Western civilization and science, and of astronomy not the least.   John C. Austin, who designed this and many other local landmarks of the era, was deftly able  to heed the traditional expectation that the Observatory would be an acropolis of learning, and culture, yet at the same time avoid the use of virtually all "neo-" stylistic elements.   Here there are neither Ionic columns, nor Roman vaults, nor Gothic arches.   Instead, most of the details are Art Deco, which, given the unusual shape of this building, seems more than modern: it seems futuristic.   If we didn't know what this building was, it could almost be a backdrop from an early Star Trek episode, the kind they used to smash cut to, accompanied by an imperious trombone passage to let us know we were looking on the works of a mighty and alien civilization.

As we'll see, Griffith Observatory functions mainly as a museum of astronomy, which makes the numerous large windows unusual.   Windows can reduce a museum's interior exhibit space; yet in this case that doesn't happen.  From the inside, unless you look for clues as to how the space is divided, it's impossible to tell where the windows are.   It's hard even to be sure that they are actually windows at all, and not just blind recesses in the exterior with shades and lights that are turned on at night.

Griffith Observatory front view

Without the domes it would look like a federal government agency of some sort, like a Post Office or courthouse.

Detail of planetarium dome

A close-up examination of the dome reveals the sole concession to ancient Greece: a narrow band of simplified Greek key decoration  running around the dome, and across the top of each arch.   As a matter of fact, this decorative device runs around most of the  building. 

Further details are in keeping with that aesthetic.   The wrought iron doorway embellishments, both in front and at several side entrances provide a satisfying sense of permanence and tradition, but do not emulate any specific style.  Incidentally, the side entrances are usually unlocked, because the policy of free admission, which was once standard for museums, has been maintained here.

Griffith Observatory: Side entrance to the exhibition halls

 The Hall of Science and Planetarium

The name Hall of Science reflects the simple dignity with which museums branded their exhibit spaces in the early twentieth century.  

The Foucault pendulum is one of the best known exhibits in the hall.

The famous Foucault pendulum

Because of the Earth's rotation, the direction of the pendulum's swing seems to rotate, making a full circle approximately every one and three-quarter days.   A pendulum's period of rotation is a function of its latitude, and varies from a minimum of 24 hours at either Pole to infinity at the Equator.

Overhead is a typical example of public art from the 1930s, although naturally with an astronomical theme.

Among other things, we see signs of the Zodiac, notably Taurus accompanied by the Pleiades, who, with their halos, look more like a half-dozen Early Christian saints than the daughters of Atlas.  Atlas himself is seen holding up the sky.  As we all know, Atlas was punished, for something or other, by being made to hold up the heavens for all eternity.   One day, however, Hercules passed by, on the commute to his next Labor, and Atlas nearly succeeded in tricking him to take over that holding-up-the-sky gig.   Wouldn't you just know it, though:  Hercules said, "Atlas!  Dude!  Could you just hold up the spheres of the heavens for one more minute while I re-arrange my lion pelt to cushion the load on my shoulders?  I swear, it'll only take one minute if that."  Atlas very obligingly did so, and before he knew where he was, Hercules was already on his way down the road, chuckling to himself about that dumb ox Atlas.   
Other prominent exhibits include the 12-inch refracting telescope, a current and continuous view of the Sun, magnified and projected on a screen in the hall, and a large periodic table of the elements, comprising samples of the actual elements.

Carbon.  I thought there was a diamond in here, somewhere.
This part of the exhibit also shows some of the noble gases, which are sealed in tubes and subjected to an electric current, causing them to glow in their characteristic colors.

For example, here's krypton.

And here's helium.


While we're here it would be nice to show what a typical planetarium show looks like, but that's not really easy to do on a blog.  But here's a screen shot from an excellent freeware program called Celestia.

The Northern Sky

Even in 1935 local skies were too beset with light pollution to allow serious work in optical astronomy.  Instead, the Observatory's role has been mainly to inspire and educate the public, both through planetarium lectures and through allowing visitors to peer through the telescope at bright objects like the Moon and planets. Even so, the institution is run by qualified astronomers, and it does occasionally take on more serious work. For example, during World War II, military pilots came here to study celestial navigation, as did the astronauts in the Apollo program a couple of decades later.   

Outdoor Exhibits and Views

Prominent outdoor exhibits include the Astronomers' Monument, sundials, and a scale map of the Solar System.   A monument to James Dean is one of the newer additions.

The Astronomers' Monument honors several great astronomers including Johannes Kepler, Galileo Galilei, Nicholas Copernicus, Hipparchus, William Herschel, and Isaac Newton.

Astronomers Monument

The team of sculptors responsible for this monument were commissioned as part of the Public Works of Art Project, a Depression-era program that was part of President Roosevelt's New Deal. If the way the statues are posed looks familiar, it's probably because one of the artists on the team was George Stanley, who had designed the Oscar statuette a few years before.

The Solar System Diagram is in the grand tradition of embedding in pavements things to edify and amuse us.

Solar System Layout

It is rather well done at that.

Unlike  a typical garden sundial, the Armillary Sundial  can tell  you the time down to the minute.  You can set your watch by it.  It's possible to see the gnomon's shadow moving much like the minute hand of a large clock.

Armillary Sundial

The James Dean monument is in honor of the movie Rebel Without A Cause, a key sequence of which was filmed here.

The James Dean Statue
Rebel Without A Cause is without doubt a classic, and James Dean's performance in it is legendary.  However, the administrators of the Observatory had an additional, special reason for honoring the late actor, explained in the plaque on the plinth. 

Among other things, it points out that, while many movies have been filmed here, RWAC was the first one to portray the observatory as what it is, and to contribute positively to its international reputation.   

The views from the Observatory's terraces are renowned, and in recent decades more so since the problem of smog, and especially the visible, brown kind, has been very much abated.

Here's a view to the southwest, showing the ocean in the distance.  

And this is looking toward downtown L.A.

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