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L.A.'s Buffed-Up Observatory: The Sequel Outshines the Original

By Laura Randall
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 5, 2006

As work crews hurried to put the finishing touches on the Griffith Observatory a couple of weeks ago, Joseph Wise emerged from a trail nearby with a relaxed smile. The actor, who lives nearby, comes to Griffith Park in Los Angeles a few times a week to hike the trails and connect with nature. He has seen deer, coyotes, red-tailed hawks, gopher snakes and opossums on his expeditions.

"It keeps me sane," Wise said as he unlaced his sneakers and looked up at the surrounding chaparral-covered hillsides.

For Griffith Park regulars like Wise, perhaps the most remarkable feature of the spiffed-up observatory -- which reopened to the public Friday after a five-year, $93 million renovation -- is that the place looks pretty much the same as it did when it opened in 1935. Just a lot shinier.

The 250-pound Foucault pendulum still swings from the front rotunda, but the pit beneath it isn't cracked and stained anymore.

The original Zeiss telescope, which has had more viewers (7 million) than the population of Maryland, remains in the observatory's rooftop dome, but now it sends a live video feed of the universe to the main hall for those who can't or won't climb up to the roof. And the renamed Samuel Oschin Planetarium still features one of the most accurate star vaults in the world, but its creaky metal-backed seats have been replaced by comfortable recliners. (The popular light-and-sound Laserium shows, which played to Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon," however, didn't make the cut.)

Outside, the 40-foot-high Astronomers Monument featuring Copernicus, Hipparchus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Herschel is as awesome as ever on the front lawn. So is the bust of James Dean commemorating the actor's nearby knife fight in "Rebel Without a Cause" -- though it has been repositioned closer to the "Hollywood" sign to create a better photo opportunity.

The observatory's main goal remains "putting people eyeball to telescope," says Edwin Krupp, its director. "Part of the fundamental master plan was to adapt the observatory to take on a richer menu of activities, while keeping what is essential and satisfying and well-loved about it."

Perched high above Hollywood at the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains, the Griffith Observatory anchors the south-central side of Griffith Park, which is also home to the Los Angeles Zoo, the outdoor Greek Theatre, four golf courses and 53 miles of hiking trails. About twice the size of Rock Creek Park, Griffith Park opened in 1896 after Col. Griffith J. Griffith, a wealthy mining speculator of questionable character (he would be convicted of shooting his wife in 1903), donated the land to the city of Los Angeles.

The observatory came 39 years later, after a post-prison trip to the Mount Wilson Observatory high in the San Gabriel Mountains inspired Griffith to give the city $100,000 to bring the universe to the masses.

In a slight tweak to Griffith's vision, entry to the observatory is still free, but it requires a timed reservation and visitors who don't hike or ride a bicycle up to the facility must take a shuttle bus from one of two satellite parking sites at a cost of $8 per adult. (Officials say this is a temporary arrangement to avoid the traffic jams that initial crowds would otherwise be expected to cause.)

The biggest changes to the observatory are beneath the surface of the original building. The renovation, which began in early 2002, more than doubled its size and took nearly twice as long as planned. Work crews excavated the entire hillside under the front lawn to add a new level that includes 60 exhibits on tides, seasons, phases of the moon and other astronomical themes -- all flanked by a stunning 20-by-152-foot photo mural of a million stars and galaxies.

Next to a row of scale models of the planets is a 200-seat theater, named after actor and donor Leonard Nimoy; an 18-minute documentary on the observatory's 71-year history shows on the half-hour. On the west side of the building, those who remember the sorry-looking hot dogs at the parking lot's snack bar will be happy to learn that Wolfgang Puck is overseeing a new terrace cafe with the kinds of views that typically only the Spielbergs and Schwarzeneggers can afford.

While most Griffith Park attractions carried on as usual during the observatory renovation, many have also undergone subtle-but-noticeable improvements in such things as food, organized hiking activities and visitor guidance.

Last year, a couple of entrepreneurs turned a former snow-cone shack into a gourmet snack stand, called the Trails Cafe, that serves goat cheese and tomato pie, homemade apple pie and pumpkin scones. The park headquarters still offers vague, hard-to-decipher maps of the property, but it now has an interactive display of the grounds and a help desk staffed by a knowledgeable ranger. And the Gene Autry-founded Museum of the American West, which celebrates all things cowboy, is undergoing big changes of its own as it works with the Southwest Museum of the American Indian and builds one of the most comprehensive collections of Western art and history in the country, slated for completion in 2008.

Other things in Griffith Park haven't changed much at all, such as the 1926 merry-go-round, which purportedly inspired Walt Disney's theme-park idea as he watched his daughter ride the wooden horses (not so far-fetched, since he lived nearby), and Fern Dell, a flat path lined with a bubbling stream and leafy ferns and pine trees on the park's southwest side.

The park still lacks trail signs and a coherent map of hiking paths, but it has been offering an increasing number of free guided hikes to help familiarize visitors with its wild hillsides.

On a recent Tuesday evening, more than 100 exercise hounds, from triathletes to parents with bundled-up toddlers strapped to their backs, gathered around a megaphone-barking leader from the Sierra Club as he divided everyone into groups based on their fitness levels. Level 1 participants were told to expect a vigorous stroll through the woods. Level 5 meant you'd better be ready for anything, from scrambling up rock-covered ridges to doing wind sprints around the Hollywood sign.

Kariné Armen, a petite photographer from Glendale wearing an "I Love Armenia" T-shirt, led a group of Level 2 hikers up a well-worn fire road shadowed by pine trees and scrub. Flashlights were unnecessary as the path weaved in and out of twinkling city views. When asked to name the trail, Armen shrugged. "I call it my favorite trail," she said.

At a small dirt clearing, the group stopped to gaze at the Griffith Observatory glowing in the distance to the west, with the glittering metropolis unfurled below it.

No one was aware that the beautiful building was reopening soon. They just quietly savored the view of their city's unique landmark.

Laura Randall last wrote for Travel on Desert Hot Springs, Calif.

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