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Arts and Entertainment

Remembering Griffith Park's Murderous Benefactor As The Park Turns 120

Hikers in Griffith Park overlook Downtown (Photo by Mike Hume via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
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In 1896, Welsh immigrant Griffith J. Griffith donated some 3,000 acres of his Rancho Los Feliz property to the City of Los Angeles. That land became Griffith Park (that’s right, early Hollywood director D.W. Griffith had nothing to do with it), which celebrates its 120th anniversary this month.

(Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
According to KNBC, Griffith once housed his ostrich farm on the 3,000 acres of beautifully chaparraled hillside he donated. The park has since grown to 4,300 acres—five times the size of Manhattan’s Central Park. It's now one of the largest urban nature parks in North America, and the tenth-largest municipally owned park in the United States. Griffith wanted a host of amenities on the land, but his personal life (the Native Angeleno once described him as "the O.J. Simpson of his day) got in the way of their timely fruition. As KCET describes:

Griffith's own plans for the park, which came to include an astronomical observatory as well as a large outdoor amphitheater, were held up by scandal. In 1903, Griffith shot his wife in an alcohol-fueled rage. He was convicted of attempted murder and spent two years in San Quentin. His reputation tarnished, the city would not accept his gift of $700,000 to fund the improvements until after his death in 1919. The Greek Theatre finally opened in 1929, and the Griffith Observatory in 1935.
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Griffith further envisioned the eponymous park as a response to the luxury resorts cropping up on the nearby hills of the San Gabriel Mountains. "It must be made a place of recreation and rest for the masses. A resort for the rank and file, for the plain people," Griffith told the City Council of his gift. The other famed features of the park were slowly added over the coming decades. The Griffith Observatory opened in 1935; Traveltown set up shop in 1952, and The Los Angeles Zoo moved to its present location in 1966.

Opening day of the Griffith Observatory, May 14, 1935 (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection)
But some argue a more cynical reason for Griffith’s donation. Here's how KCET explained it:

The gift may have been evidence of Griffith's charitable spirit, but Griffith Park almost certainly owes its existence to the fact that the mountainous land would not be developable for many decades. As [Mike] Eberts argues in his history of the park [“Griffith Park: A Centennial History”], Griffith was paying taxes on land that had little market value. Griffith, in fact, carved out a small, flat portion of the park that did have development potential—today, the location of the Harding Memorial Golf Course—to keep for himself.

"[Griffith] was deliberately flashy, and used to parade around with a cane and a frock coat," Eberts told the L.A. Times a few years ago, detailing Griffith's public persona:

Some were impressed by Griffith's man-about-town demeanor; others were put off. One acquaintance described him as a "midget egomaniac; another as a "roly-poly pompous little fellow" who "had an exaggerated strut like a turkey gobbler," Eberts said. And no one could ever figure out what the "Colonel" stood for, since the only military title he'd ever officially held was a "major" of rifle practice with the California National Guard.

"He was definitely a flawed man. But I can't think of anyone who gave the city a bigger gift," Eberts said in that same interview.

And like any famous Angeleno, the park has starred in several films and television series. The Bronson Canyon caves doubled as the Batcave in the 1960s TV iteration of Batman. More recently, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling share a heartbreaking moment beneath the Observatory in the film La La Land.

But to the millions of Southern California residents, the wide-open spaces of Griffith Park continue to be a favorite location for hikes, picnics, and other outdoor activities.

So, here's to you, Griffith Park. Happy birthday. 120 never looked better.

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