LOS ANGELES — After a five-year hiatus, packed busloads of visitors are once again winding up multiple switchbacks to visit the most dramatic panorama in southern California. They're here to see the stars – the celestial kind – at Griffith Observatory.
The rehabbed building, with nearly an acre of new exhibit space underground, has been attracting hyperbole from local boosters as well as the scientific community. The building was shuttered in 2002, when the domed, creamy-white structure was showing the wear and tear of 70 million visitors since it opened in 1930. Even light rainfall had meant capturing leaks in hundreds of buckets.
Now, say astronomers, America's premier public observatory is back on track, pursuing its central mission: to ignite wonder and awe. Science research is publicly funded, for the most part. That means public support is needed for such projects as the NASA shuttle program, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the International Space Station, as well as better science curriculums in schools.
"The Griffith Observatory's reopening is unquestionably historic as one of the major observatories of the world," says Richard Berendzen, professor of physics at American University in Washington, D.C. "It has played one of the giant roles over the decades in sparking the interest and curiosity that have fueled generations of astronomers and scientists."
Dr. Berendzen and others say another critical function of Griffith and other key observatories – notably New York's Hayden Planetarium – is to try to close America's "workforce readiness gap" by inspiring future generations of scientists.
Beyond the cosmetic overhaul of Griffith's aging Egyptian/art deco/modern exterior, the observatory pulled off a major engineering feat by adding 40,000-sq.-ft. of multi-level gallery space underground, a 200-seat presentation theater, 60 new exhibits, plus a cafe, bookstore, and new entrances and elevators. The original planetarium – known for its uncomfortable seats – has been replaced by a cushy 300-seat facility with a new "seamless" dome, new star projector, digital laser projectors, and upgraded sound and lighting.
"The planetarium was already my favorite place of all," says Irene Kulwin. She had visited Griffith every six months for three decades until its closing, she says. She was among several thousand visitors who crowded into Griffith during the first week since its reopening Nov. 3. Ms. Kulwin and her two children played on the vast lawn over the cavernous underground museum. "Now it's back, and it's more awesome than ever," she says.
Among the awe-inspiring displays is "The Big Picture," a wall 152-feet long and 20-feet high made up of 114 photo panels depicting more than 1.5 million galaxies, stars, and other objects. The photos – reproduced on ceramic tiles – were shot by the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope on Mt. Palomar near San Diego.
A bronze statue of Albert Einstein faces the panel and holds up a finger to let visitors know that the "Big Picture" depicts roughly the amount of the night sky that one's index finger covers if you hold it about a foot from your eyes – about 1/1,000th of the night sky.
Booths, alcoves, and dioramas illustrate the history of human observation of the sky. Optical tools from lenses to telescopes to mirrors show how astronomers increased their understanding of the universe. Newer exhibits explain how nonvisible radiation – X-rays, gamma rays, infrared, microwaves – has extended astronomical discovery.
Planetarium shows and other exhibits tell how southern California became a world leader in astronomy because of its clear skies and dry climate. The state boasts several major observatories.
Griffith is the legacy of Welsh immigrant Griffith J. Griffith, who came to America as a teenager in 1866 and later made a fortune in Mexican silver mines and southern California real estate. He donated 3,000 acres of land to the city of Los Angeles in 1896, hoping to re-create one of Europe's great public parks.
Later, he was profoundly moved by visits to nearby Mt. Wilson, where he looked through its 60-inch telescope, then the world's largest. "Man's sense of values ought to be revised," Griffith said. "If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would change the world."
Now the most visited public observatory in the world (2 million annual visitors in the decade before renovation), Griffith has also been featured in hundreds of TV shows and movies – most notably "Rebel Without a Cause," starring James Dean. Seven million people have put their own eyeball to the observatory's original 12-inch refracting telescope. The telescope is trained nightly to the moon, planets, and other celestial events such as passing comets.