How a gift to the city of LA became a world-famous stargazing spot

In 1781 José Vicente Feliz was one of four soldiers who guarded settlers as they founded El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles, the town that would one day become Los Angeles. Feliz went on to become the settlement’s first commisionado, or mayor. As a reward for his service, the Spanish King Carlos III awarded him one of the first land grants in California’s history. The 6647-acre area in the hills to the east of the settlement took the name Rancho Los Feliz.

In 1882 Griffith J. Griffith, who was born in Glamorganshire in Wales before making his fortune in California mining, purchased a large swath of Rancho Los Feliz. Fourteen years later, Griffith donated 3015 acres of the land to the city of Los Angeles, calling it “a Christmas present.” He told the Los Angeles City Council at the time of his dream for Griffith Park. “It must be made a place of rest and relaxation for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people,” he said. “I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happy, cleaner, and finer city.”

Toward the end of his life, Griffith visited the Mount Wilson Observatory in the San Gabriel Mountains. The experience of gazing out at the universe profoundly affected him. “Man’s sense of values ought to be revised,” he commented. “If all mankind could look through that telescope, it would revolutionize the world.” When he died in 1919, Griffith left money in his will to be used to build an observatory that would make astronomy accessible to the general public. Construction began on June 20, 1933, and the Griffith Observatory opened its doors on May 14, 1935. Admission has always been free, in accordance with Griffith’s wishes.

The observatory’s prime location on the south-facing slope of Mount Hollywood makes it visible from much of Los Angeles. The surrounding Griffith Park, now expanded to 4310 acres, remains one of the largest urban parks in the United States. The arid climate means there is always a risk of brush fires, and the hills still contain pockets of wilderness. Mountain lions, cougars and coyotes all call Griffith Park home.

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