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Sky High Design: The Griffith Observatory

Design Trends

High on Mount Hollywood in Griffith Park is the Griffith Observatory, where the Art Deco masterpiece has stood proudly over the LA skyline since 1935. It was built as part of the 3,015 acres of land donated by Colonel Griffith J. Griffith in 1896 to the City of Los Angeles. Griffith also donated funds to build an observatory and planetarium on the donated land. One of his wishes was that the observatory remain a free space for the people; and this remains true, with free admission all year round. Designed by architects John C. Austin and Frederick M. Ashley, the building, while identified as Art Deco, has both Moderne and Modified Greek Influences with a Beaux-Arts influenced plan.

The observatory is one of the most visited landmarks in Los Angeles. Its unique architecture, copper domes and comprehensive exhibition offerings make it a one-of-a-kind place that sees millions of visitors each year. From the rooftop and observatory viewing decks one can view Hollywood, Downtown Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Basin and the Pacific Ocean. It's been the backdrop of countless films and television shows, but perhaps none more famous than the James Dean's Rebel Without a Cause (1955) – Dean has even been immortalized in a bronze bust on the observatory lawn.

Griffith Observatory closed its doors in 2002 for its first major renovation and expansion since it opened in 1935. The goals for the project included renovating the existing building and restoring all elements to their original state, adding nearly 40,000 square feet of public space to improve the visitor experience (including 200-seat presentation theatre, café, bookstore, classroom and multi-level exhibition space) and updating the planetarium with new dome, star projector, and digital laser projectors to make it one of the most state-of-the-art planetariums in the world.

The project took four years and cost $93-million. Architects Stephen Johnson of Pfeiffer Partners and Brenda Levin led the project; both teams working to ensure all renovations preserved the original building's key historical and architectural aspects. To increase interior space, inside of building out of up, the design teams worked down, removing 30,000 cubic yards of earth to build a lower level that houses both a theatre and exhibition spaces. After it reopened, there were 54 full-time and over 150 part-time staff working in the observatory.

The renovation restored both the interior and exterior features of the observatory. The exterior of the building has many details: from the aforementioned domes to decorative metal window grilles, Greek patterns cast directly into the concrete, and the Astronomers Monument on the lawn outside. Inside the use of luxury materials is evident, including bronze metalwork, marble flooring, travertine walls and wood. The main entry brings visitors into a central rotunda featuring a mural by Hugo Ballin across the ceiling. From this ceiling hangs a 40-ft Foucault pendulum (created to demonstrate the earth's rotations). There are numerous wings across two levels exhibiting moon phases, an illuminated periodic table of the elements, scale model of the planets and, tucked away in The Gunther Depth of Space Hall, a bronze statue of Albert Einstein sitting on a bench pondering the universe.

One of the most jaw-dropping features is the 12-inch Zeiss Refracting Telescope, located in the rooftop dome on the building's east end. Serving up to 600 visitors each night, more than 5 million people have looked through the telescope since the observatory's opening in 1935.

For more information about the Griffith Observatory visit

Images by Sarah Link