That one of L.A.’s most prominent landmarks is perhaps most prominent because of a movie says a lot about L.A. Way before I had ever been to Los Angeles, heard the term “Art Deco,” or knew the significance of the Griffith Observatory, it was embedded in my consciousness due to the 1955 film “Rebel Without a Cause.” The Griffith is one of the movie’s “stars,” from the famous knife fight involving James Dean outside and planetarium-watching inside early on, to Sal Mineo‘s death scene at the end.
But after moving here, I discovered that the Griffith Observatory is the Swiss Army Knife of Los Angeles landmarks. It has numerous uses, and appeals to people for different reasons beyond its starring role in “Rebel” (and its lesser role in “The Terminator“):
1. The Architecture
In a city full of art deco designs, the Griffith is perhaps the standout. That may be because the gleaming three-domed concrete building literally stands out, maybe more than any structure in Los Angeles save for the Hollywood sign. It has been called “the hood ornament of Los Angeles,” an apt term for our car-obsessed city. The Griffith, constructed during the Great Depression and formally opened to the public in 1935, can be approached and explored from many angles. As often happens with art deco structures, I discover some new detail — a nook, carving, door, or viewing perspective — every time I go. Last time I was there, after our fabulous Donut Summit, I hiked on the trails around the Griffith and enjoyed seeing it from a distance as well.
2. The Planetarium and Telescope
The Griffith is, after all, an observatory, and many schoolchildren are taken there primarily for this purpose. The Observatory was closed for renovations, including an underground expansion, in 2002 and reopened in early November 2006, coincidentally, just a few days before I arrived here. Now it is as popular as ever, with its renamed Samuel Oschin Planetarium redone with state-of-the-art projectors and equipment. A nifty, industrial-design cafe was added during the redo, subtly sunken below grade on the side, with a long terrace outside. I happen to think the cafe is a tasteful and tasty addition to the Observatory.
3. The View
It is perfectly rational to come to the Griffith and not set foot inside. In addition to the architecture, the views from the Griffith are captivating. I didn’t realize that L.A. had several separated clusters of tall buildings (downtown, Century City, Wilshire Corridor) until I viewed them from the Griffith. But then turn in another direction, and you’ll see modern and classic Spanish style homes, Jacaranda trees (depending on the time of year), and usually arid hills that dominate this part of the city. And of course, the Hollywood sign. Turn a few degrees more, and, on a clear day, you’ll see the ocean.
I would also be remiss in not mentioning that the Griffith Observatory is nestled near the edge of the fabulous, 3,000 acre Griffith Park. From picnicking (and Donut Summiteering) to the Greek Theater to the hiking trails, one can easily branch out from the Observatory to enjoy its surroundings.
4. The Democracy
As befits an important city landmark, admission to the Griffith and surrounding park is free. Parking is free. Telescope viewing at night is free. The planetarium will set you back, but not very much. On any given day, you’re likely to find a mixture of locals, tourists, schoolchildren on field trips, and a tv actor walking his Great Dane (although you’ll have to be there with someone else, as I was, who has the radar to spot these stars under their baseball caps). Folks I know enjoy the place at twilight, for hiking or picnics and drinks under the emerging stars.
Ultimately, then, what is so appealing to me about the Griffith Observatory is its versatility. Angelenos and tourists alike can go to this magical-looking place, named after the fantastically named Griffith Griffith and located on top of the appropriately named Mount Hollywood, to pursue their own wishes, from architectural exploration to hiking to viewing the city from above to star-gazing, both celestial and celluloid. What could be more L.A. than that?
(See the rest of the “L.A.’s Greatest Landmarks” series here)