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Hugo Ballin's Los Angeles

Caroline Luce, Author

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Griffith Observatory - About this Commission

Griffith J. Griffith builds his vision for LA
Griffith J. Griffith was born in Wales in 1850 and came to America as a teenager. After working in Pennsylvania for several years, he moved to San Francisco in 1873 and became a journalist. He served as the first mining industry correspondent for the Daily Alta California, San Francisco’s first English-language newspaper, and used the intimate understanding of the industry he developed during his travels to amass a significant fortune investing in silver mines in Mexico. Then, in 1882, he used that fortune to purchase the 4,000-acre Rancho de Los Feliz in the hills above downtown Los Angeles. He sold the water rights of the rancho to the city at a price well below market rates but maintained most of the property as a working ranch and ostrich farm, making his home on the the most fertile portion near the Los Angeles River. As a “dashing young capitalist-about-town,” Griffith met and married Christina Mesmer, who had inherited a large and desirable tract of property that her husband sold for almost $1 million, growing his fortune even further.13

Like many of city’s other wealthy businessmen, Griffith had high hopes for Los Angeles and believed it was his duty to help it become one of the world’s great cities through philanthropy and civic investment. Having grown up in an extremely poor family, he recognized that while cities were “vast reservoirs of wealth, with all the luxury that wealth begets,” they were also “hotbeds of disease, poverty, vice and indescribable misery.” To avoid these problems, Griffith argued, Los Angeles needed to provide its residents with ample access to public parks, the “safety valve of great cities,” and make them accessible to all residents regardless of race, color or creed to “give every person a greater opportunity in health, strength, and mental power.”14 So, in 1896, Griffith donated over 3,000 acres of his Rancho Los Feliz to the city of Los Angeles to develop such a “great park” for its growing population. As he described when presenting the gift, the 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…I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happy, cleaner, and finer city. I wish to pay my debt of duty in this way to the community in which I have prospered."15
At the time of his donation, there were very few roads or trails on the property and most of the park was inaccessible, but Griffith hoped his gift would inspire others to contribute money to development of the park. Unfortunately, those private gifts were not forthcoming and, even though several proposals for development were made, including a federal arboretum, a bird sanctuary and scenic funicular, the city did not commit the funds necessary to develop the park for over a decade.

Spreading an awareness of the heavens
Frustrated by the city’s lack of progress, in 1912 Griffith pledged to donate an additional $100,000 to fund the construction of a hall of science and another $50,000 to build an amphitheater within the park. Mayor Henry Rose, reluctant to turn down such a gift, appointed a three-person Board of Commissioners to oversee the funds, with Griffith serving as its chair so he could realize his vision for the projects. Griffith imagined the amphitheater as part of a larger development in the canyon above Vermont Avenue that would include tennis courts, picnic and camping facilities and a large playground and would serve as the main entrance and recreation center of the park. His vision for an observatory was inspired by a visit to the new research facility at Mt. Wilson, where Griffith himself had been impressed and deeply moved by seeing the stars through a powerful telescope. The visit convinced him that “awareness of the heavens was linked to self-development” and hoped that by making science more accessible to the public, he could foster innovation and creativity and “revolutionize the world.”16 His intricate plans for the observatory included a telescope open to public viewing, a hall of science with educational exhibits, and a theater for broadcasting educational films that would make science “understandable to the layman.” He re-wrote his will so that, when he died in 1919, the bulk of his $1.5 million estate was given to the city to use for the completion of the observatory and amphitheater.17

It took several years of legal wrangling to settle Griffith’s will and the Griffith Trust did not begin to operate fully until 1924. But the following year, efforts accelerated when the city council rewrote the city charter to require a fixed percentage of tax revenue be given to the Parks Commission. Construction began first on the amphitheater, which was given the name the Greek Theater, and in 1930, the commissioners finally formed a committee to begin planning the observatory. They enlisted a group of scientists from CalTech to advise on purchasing the technology and equipment and solicited telescope enthusiast Russell W. Porter to envision the space. Porter made dozens of sketches for the project, outlining many ideas that made their way into the final plans. He imagined a structure built around a large central dome with two wings extending to the east and west, each with a smaller dome to house a telescope and an exhibition space, that would rise from the slope of Mt. Hollywood instead of being built on a flat plane. The roof of the building could serve as an observation deck for additional public viewing both of the stars at night and of the incredible view of the city during the day. Architects John C. Austin and Frederick M. Ashley worked with Porter to implement the design, adding a 75-foot-wide theater on the floors below for the Planetarium Projector, a new technology purchased to fulfill Griffith’s vision for the educational theater. 

Economic reality slows construction, but enhances decorative elements
Unfortunately for the designers, the construction of the Observatory, which began in June 1933, coincided with the deepening of the Depression and a rapid decline of the local economy. Their plans had to be pared back to include only the basic elements of their design: spaces for a telescope and coelostat (sun telescope), a hall of science, a rooftop promenade, and the planetarium. They built the entire structure from concrete, rather than more expensive stone, and created the three domes by wrapping copper sheets around steel frames. In the foyer of the central dome, they placed the observatory’s first exhibit: a Foucault pendulum, a 240-pound brass ball that swung across a circle 38 feet in diameter, designed by artist Roger Hayward to illustrate the earth’s movement on its axis.

The timing of construction did, however allow the commissioners to capitalize on new sources of federal funding created by public works programs of President Roosevelt’s New Deal to enhance the building’s grandiosity with decorative art. A group of six local artists commissioned through the Public Works Arts Project designed an “Astronomers Monument” to adorn the lawn in front of the building - a six-sided star-shaped obelisk made from poured concrete that featured sculptures of history’s greatest astronomers including Galileo, Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler. Another artist, Anthony B. Heinsbergen created decorative frescoes for the East and West galleries and the ceiling of South Gallery outside the Planetarium. Heinsbergen was renowned for his interior designs, particularly of motion-picture palaces including the United Artists Theatre on Broadway and the Pantages Theater in Hollywood, and shared Ballin’s admiration for classical mural painting. After Ballin was hired by to paint murals to decorate the rotunda of the building’s central dome in 1934, Heinsbergen invited him to paint the murals in his studio, reflecting the affinity of the two artists and their approaches to mural painting. 

Ballin embraces public vision with history of science murals
The funding of Ballin’s $8,000 commission came from the Griffith Trust and not a New Deal program, but he took very seriously Griffith’s public vision for the park.18 In keeping with Griffith’s educational mission for building the observatory, Ballin designed murals that would offer visitors a lesson in the history of “The Advancement of Science” by showcasing famous scientists and major scientific contributions “from remote periods to present times.” As he had in his murals at the Wisconsin State Capitol, Ballin divided the murals into two sections with one portion featuring allegorical figures and the other historical figures. On the ceiling of the dome, he offered a symbolic representation of “the heavens,” depicting the various myths associated with astrological phenomena in ancient Greece and Roman, with the four largest figures - Atlas, Saturn, Jupiter, and the Star of Bethlehem - placed over each doorway. Below, along the walls of the rotunda, he painted eight panels featuring real figures from the history of various scientific disciplines: Geology and Biology, Math and Physics, Metallurgy and Electricity, Navigation, Engineering, Aeronautics, Time, and, of course, Astronomy. As Ballin described it, the positioning of the murals were designed to create a “circulatory movement,” drawing the visitor's eyes up from the Foucault Pendulum below toward “the heavens” on the ceiling and then around the rotunda through the “history of science” as a means of encouraging visitors to look to the sky and stars for inspiration in their daily lives, as Griffith had.19

Ballin’s murals at the Griffith Observatory were more traditional and classical in style than other murals he painted in the 1930s. Like those murals, Ballin included only a very few allegorical female characters and employed techniques from filmmaking and set design - montage, fragmented planes and props – to give the murals depth and to enhance his storytelling abilities. Here, though, rather than ordinary people, Ballin chose to make gods of ancient mythology and prolific scientists the subject of his work and returned to the classical, colorful and romantic painting style of his early career. But, while the murals, as John Mosley noted in his study, reflected Ballin’s distaste for the trend towards more abstract, primitive and avant-garde styles of painting popular among other mural artists at the time, the murals also reveal Ballin’s commitment to the public mission of Griffith and his observatory. In his previous historical panels, such as those at the Title Guarantee Building created just three years earlier, most of the figures depicted were Anglos, with nonwhite minorities and indigenous people depicted as subordinate to the power of white men, if they were included at all. At the observatory, though, Ballin celebrated the contributions of non-Anglos and their influence on the history of science.  He placed panels depicting Arabian mathematics, the Aztec Calendar, and Emperor Yao alongside those honoring Galileo, Leonardo and the other Renaissance masters he so admired. All of those depicted were “great men,” in contrast to the everyday people, workers and marginalized communities who other artists made the subjects of their work, but the murals at the observatory reflect Ballin’s desire to honor the intercultural influences on the history of science. In turn, the murals represent Los Angeles’ multicultural population and diverse cultural traditions.

Restoration (2002)
Ballin's murals at the Griffith Observatory were beautifully restored with funds from the W. M. Keck Foundation in 2002 as part of an comprehensive renovation and expansion of the building. They can be viewed Tuesdays through Fridays from 12 noon to 10pm and Saturdays and Sundays from 10am to 10pm. For more information, see the Griffith Observatory's website.
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