L.A.'s Historic Observatory Reopens

After a four-year, $93 million facelift, America's most famous public observatory re-opens Nov. 3. The new Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles retains its iconic Art Deco form, but inside, exhibit space has doubled. Long-time Griffith director Edwin Krupp spoke with NEWSWEEK's Andrew Murr about the revamped planetarium, a high-tech sundial and a giant image of the stars called the Big Picture. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Why was it important to keep the look of the original 1935 building?

Edwin Krupp: Griffith Observatory is an icon of Los Angeles. It occupies the best piece of public observatory real estate in the world. It is seen from the entire basin--and when you reach the hill, you are rewarded by the sight of spectacular vistas.

What's the rationale behind the new exhibits?

We're not an astronomy textbook. We're not an astronomy Web site. It is essential for a facility like this to provide things that you can't get at home or on the Web or in a book. Griffith Observatory's primary experience is putting people's eyeballs to the universe. We give direct contact with the cosmos via the instruments that fill the building.

What's the new planetarium like?

We wanted to create a seamless horizon where the eye and the brain were fooled by the design and not distracted by the things that produce the magic. One of our goals was to help create the complete illusion of an infinite vault of sky. You can't tell where it actually ends. That was along with our desire to eliminate the view of any technology besides the star projector that has to be in the center of the room. That machine is a Zeiss Universarium Mark IX Star Projector. It's the best in the world. We negotiated improvements with Zeiss and they produced the most accurate, the most gorgeous and the most awe-inspiring domefull of stars in the world. It is exquisite. But we're still keeping one old feature: we will continue to have a live storyteller narrating the program. We think that's important.

What is the giant image of stars and galaxies you call the Big Picture?

It is the biggest astronomical picture in the world. It's not a mural. It's not a piece of artwork. It's a real dataset 150 feet long and 20 feet high. This piece of sky depicted is actually extremely small. What we blow up is actually the amount of sky you can cover up with your index finger held out in front of you. If I pointed out to you that specific piece of sky, you wouldn't see anything with the unaided eye. There aren't any major stars there. And yet, when you see the Big Picture, it is filled with objects. There are over a million galaxies visible and lots of stars from the Milky Way as well. The Big Picture puts us out in the Virgo Cluster of galaxies. This is really the nearest metropolis of galaxies to our own home in the Milky Way Galaxy.

One of the new features outside is a big solar clock-calendar called the Transit Corridor. What is that?

This is an instrument that reaches to antiquity in terms of how it works, but also reaches forward to the 21st century in the use of technology. It's a 150-foot-long channel running north-south, 10-feet wide, with a bronze line inlaid in the floor. It's like the Greenwich Meridian, except it's the Griffith Meridian. At the south end, there's a black monolith, kind of like the one in "2001: A Space Odyssey," but with a stainless steel foil extended [upward] with a hole in it. At noon every day, the sunlight passes through the hole and strikes a curved brass arc inscribed with the months and dates. But this is the 21st Century, so there are also sensors running in the arc. When the sunlight strikes a sensor, it triggers LEDs on a star chart to show which stars would be out in the daytime on that day.

People who live outside southern California may know the Observatory best from movies. How did it become such a prime location?

The Observatory has been in so many pictures, I actually think it should have its own star on Hollywood Boulevard. The very first appearance was when it was still under construction. Gene Autry starred in a 12-part serial called "The Phantom Empire." It was a very strange science-fiction western. But the film that resonates in our hearts is "Rebel Without a Cause." It's not only a great film, but it was the first film that used the Griffith Observatory as Griffith Observatory. It even featured a planetarium show.