Reaching For the Stars

A world-famous observatory's updates and expansions make it an out-of-this-world facility.
August 11, 2010

The famed Griffith Observatory, located in the heart of the Hollywood hills, receives close to two million visitors every year and has appeared in such films as the classic “Rebel Without a Cause” and the not-so-classic “Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle.” Complete with a solar telescope and a 12-inch refracting telescope, multiple scientific exhibits, and one of the world's largest planetarium domes, the structure remained virtually untouched since its opening in 1935. By 1998, though, it was clear that the structure was well overdue for a full renovation, as well as a major expansion to allow for more exhibit space, offices, and visitor amenities.

Pfeiffer Partners and Levin & Associates Architects, both based in Los Angeles, took on the observatory's rehabilitation and expansion plan in 1998, with input from observatory staff, the city of Los Angeles, and the Friends of the Observatory, a nonprofit support organization. Their first and perhaps most important decision: to make sure any addition did not negatively impact the planetarium's exterior. The Building Team got around that obstacle by going underground and constructing almost 40,000 sf of new space underneath the observatory's front lawn.

“This is a very unique solution to providing much-needed space,” says BD+C Renovation Awards judge Jeff C. Pratt, P.E., principal for KJWW Engineering, Naperville, Ill. Several above-ground elements were added to the original structure, including the Café at the End of the Universe on the western edge. The designers took special care to make the newer buildings blend in visually with the original. “It's a good example of where less is more,” says Pratt.

Armed with a $93 million budget, an expert Building Team was assembled, complete with mural, paint, metal, and exterior envelope conservators. Though a lot of work went into the entire exterior, it was the dome, the structure's most dominant feature, that proved to be the most vexing problem. Made of concrete and covered with copper plates, the original copper material was removed in order to waterproof the concrete underneath. The challenge, though, was setting up a scaffolding system around the dome without actually touching it. The Building Team got around this by placing a structural tower in the planetarium pit and raising it through the dome roof. The tower supported outrigger trusses, from which the scaffolding system was suspended and anchored to the dome's base.

Lead-based paint also had to be removed from the exterior concrete walls. The walls were covered during the paint removal, repaired, and then repainted with a breathable elastomeric coating. The original metal window grilles, granite entry steps, and bronze elements only required minor repairs and cleaning.

Griffith's interior renovations were consistent with the Secretary of the Interior Standards for Rehabilitation. Special attention was given to preserving the Hugo Ballin and A.B. Heinsbergen murals. The central rotunda and the Foucault pendulum were also restored to original condition.