Much about the history of Los Angeles is written into the landscape of Griffith Park, the 4,310 acres of Santa Monica Mountains that make up one of the largest urban parks in the country. Established in 1896, its development mirrored the growth of what had been a small town into a busy metropolis over the next few decades. Its founder, Griffith J. Griffith, was a city booster who invested in the real estate boom of the 1880s and dabbled in ventures like an ostrich farm and railroad to bring more migrants and tourists to the region. When some of the land he purchased proved too rugged to develop, Griffith donated it to a city whose leadership was now intent on creating an infrastructure for further development, including not only railroads, water, ports and streets but also parks meant to serve as a refuge from the stresses of urban life.
Yet Griffith Park came to be just as much a part of Los Angeles and the city’s distinctiveness as its new harbor and downtown business district. Los Angeles was going through an extraordinary period of growth, with a booming economy fueled by modern industries, the expansion of regional tourism and new residents pouring in from all over the world. Griffith’s son, Van, established Griffith Park Aerodrome on the northern boundary at a time when Los Angeles was becoming the aviation capital of the United States. Early Hollywood films, such as “The Birth of a Nation” directed by D.W. Griffith (no relation) and Westerns starring William S. Hart, took advantage of the park’s landscape to film key scenes. During Southern California’s Great Hiking Era, miles of new trails were used by high school hiking clubs and cross-country teams, bird watchers from the local chapter of the Audubon Society, and even Los Angeles Mayor George Cryer. These jaunts included sightings of the Hollywoodland sign, installed on the park’s Mount Lee to advertise a new housing development and later shortened by the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce to the iconic landmark.
Even during the Great Depression of the 1930s, when Los Angeles struggled through the worst economic catastrophe in the nation’s history, Griffith Park continued to offer new attractions and played a central role in government efforts to provide relief for Angelenos. The Greek Theatre opened in 1931 and promised high culture that included opera, symphonic music and classical dance. Later, it hosted productions under the New Deal’s Federal Theatre and Music projects, such as children’s marionette shows and “living newspaper” plays based on current events. Even more popular was the Griffith Observatory, featuring a public telescope and daily planetarium shows in a Greek- and Beaux Arts-designed building positioned for views of the night sky and the city. The Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round, distinguished by its ornate horses, murals and beveled mirrors, became a favorite of children and families and inspired Walt Disney to later include a similar carousel for his theme park.
Griffith Park’s recreational opportunities expanded as federal programs put unemployed residents to work building hiking and riding trails, picnic grounds, tennis courts, field hockey and cricket fields, horseshoe pits, and a nine-hole golf course. These and other activities like swimming at the Municipal Plunge were also important during the subsequent years of World War II, when the city’s population swelled by over a half million with military personnel and war workers. Wartime tensions always underlay such diversions, however, and parts of Griffith Park were used for more inauspicious purposes that betrayed the city’s rooted prejudices, inflamed by fears of a racialized enemy: Dozens of Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) fisherman from Terminal Island were held at the Griffith Park Alien Detention Center, which later became a POW Processing Station.
The postwar era saw Griffith Park further solidify its central place in the lives of Angelenos even as the city itself changed dramatically. A new generation was born into an increasingly diverse city with, again, a burgeoning economy but one built on the expansion of the freeway system, suburban development and white flight, and the abandonment of inner-city neighborhoods.
Such tensions came to the surface in the 1955 film “Rebel Without a Cause,” which prominently featured Griffith Observatory and made the park a character in a drama about youth alienation that presaged the social and cultural transformations of the following decades. (A bust commemorating the film and commissioned by its star, James Dean, now stands on the observatory lawn.) A few years later on Memorial Day in 1961, African American teenagers accused of dodging the merry-go-round fare were confronted by police, angering a crowd of 200 and leading to a mini-riot. Both the incident and LAPD Chief William Parker’s comments that “Negroes had preempted” parts of the park spoke volumes about the racial segregation at the foundation of the city and how it was increasingly being revealed.
By the mid-1960s, parts of Griffith Park became sites for the counterculture, as young people first gathered to play music and exchange “incense, gold, and pictures of your favorite guru” (as requested by a poster advertising one event), then attended human be-ins and love-ins numbering as many as 20,000, featuring local bands like The Doors. Proposals for a dump site, adjacent freeway expansion and additional roads were challenged by groups like the Sierra Club and Friends of Griffith Park, signaling a rising environmental consciousness. Their sponsorship of hiking programs, public events such as Ecology Day and grassroots letter-writing campaigns helped preserve the pastoral character of the park well into the future.
The second half of the 20th century was also a time of new development projects in Griffith Park that mirrored Los Angeles’ broader efforts to raise its profile and join the ranks of world-class cities. Travel Town opened with a collection of steam locomotives and quickly grew to become a favorite spot for family visits, birthday parties and train enthusiasts from around the world.
Long considered an embarrassment for its small enclosures, the Griffith Park Zoo was replaced by the Los Angeles Zoo, the fifth largest in the nation with more than 2,000 animals on 110 acres. Over the years, the zoo has hosted tourists, residents and countless school field trips while engaging in conservation work on the California condor and other species, even as it has sometimes been subject to scrutiny about the treatment of animals and a startling number of escapes. During one 10-year period, more than 30 animals — including antelopes, chimps, kangaroos, zebras and a gorilla named Evelyn, who enjoyed the run of the zoo four or five times — outsmarted zookeepers.
Western film star Gene Autry oversaw the opening of what is now the Autry Museum of the American West, a sprawling, Spanish mission-inspired complex complete with bell tower and plaza visible from the Golden State-Ventura Freeway interchange. Initially known for its nostalgic celebration of the Old West, the Autry expanded to host exhibits and support scholarship characteristic of the New Western History, by incorporating a diversity of perspectives and extending the study of the American West to the present.
Today’s Griffith Park is a result of these and many other changes over more than a century of Los Angeles history. A visitor on a busy weekend might find crowds waiting for the merry-go-round while the soundtrack of its self-playing Wurlitzer band organ competes with the thwack of tennis racquets on adjacent courts. During the week resident coyotes descend from the hills to investigate what’s been left behind by picnicking families, moving among dog walkers and strolling couples unconcerned by their presence. Hikers use nearby trailheads to explore deeper into the park, including a trail that quickly rises and falls, then tours the site of the old zoo.
If it’s a certain time of the year, the eerie quality of the abandoned cages is made more so by preparations for the park’s annual Haunted Hayride, featuring Hollywood-style theatrics and special effects. Just 100 feet farther, a seemingly ancient stand of California live oaks bears hundreds of holes made by acorn woodpeckers. The trail continues to ascend, offering views of all the park’s attractions, culminating in the climb to Mount Hollywood, perhaps the best vantage point in all of Los Angeles.
When Griffith J. Griffith granted the land that would become Griffith Park to the city in 1896, he told the Los Angeles City Council, “It must be made a place of rest and relaxation for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people.” While it has fulfilled this basic mission in myriad ways, Griffith Park’s past also has been far more complicated, like the history of Los Angeles itself. We can see both the traces and signs of this past and learn a great deal about Los Angeles history by looking closely at Griffith Park today, even as we follow the examples set by generations of Angelenos, by using the park as the refuge intended by its namesake and founder.
Nicolas G. Rosenthal is associate professor of history in the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. He specializes in Native American, American West and 20th century U.S. history. He is the author of “Re-Imagining Indian Country: Native American Migration and Identity in Twentieth-Century Los Angeles.” His “This Is Indian Country” appeared in LMU Magazine (Summer 2016).