I’ve spent the last few weeks learning the strange & sometimes sordid history of Griffith Park & it’s namesake, Griffith J. Griffith, for a short documentary I’ve been working on. As is usually the case, much of my research for the film didn’t make it into the final cut, so I thought I’d share it here along with a couple of photographs I’ve been having a fun time “vintage-ing” up. It’s fun to think of LA in a bygone era. The history of this place is especially interesting to me because LA so frequently stands in for somewhere else. Sometimes I think that means we forget it has its own quirks.
Griffith Park’s initial 3015 acres were donated to the city of Los Angeles on December 16th 1896 by the wealthy industrialist Griffith J. Griffith. He had originally purchased the land to host an ostrich farm which he intended to use to lure Los Angeles area residents to his nearby housing development.
Born in Wales in 1850 Griffith immigrated to the united states at age 15. By 1873 he was living in San Francisco & managing a local publishing company. In 1878 he became a mining correspondent for a local newspaper. He would eventually use his knowledge of mining to amass a large fortune, estimated to be upwards of 1.5 million dollars at the time of his death.
Married to Mary Agnes Christina Mesmer in 1887, he had one child, a son born in 1888.
Well known for his philanthropy, he donated the land for his eponymous park as what he called a “Christmas present” to the city. Stipulating that it must be “made a place of rest & relaxation for the masses,” Griffith told the City Council “I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happy, cleaner, & finer city.”
On September 3rd 1903 his pristine reputation was tarnished when, while vacationing in Santa Monica, he shot his wife Mary in the head. The shot did not kill her, but she was permanently disfigured & lost her right eye. Griffith was charged with assault with a deadly weapon with intent to commit murder. During his trial Mary revealed in her testimony that Griffith, who was generally thought to be a teetotaler, was actually a secret alcoholic who had frequent paranoid delusions.
He was found guilty of the lesser charge of assault & spent just two years in prison for the crime. During his incarceration, Mary was granted a divorce on the grounds of cruelty & full custody of their son. As part of the settlement, the court required Griffith to pay for the boy to attend Standford University. Mary Griffith’s divorce decree was awarded after a record breaking 4 minutes of deliberation.
In 1912, Griffith donated a large sum of money to the city of Los Angeles earmarked for the construction of an observatory, theatre, & children’s camp in the park. Because his conviction, the park council refused the donation on moral grounds. The money, however, remained in a trust until it was eventually used for the construction of the Greek Theatre in 1930 & Griffith Observatory in 1935. The theatre was initially underused & spent some time as a barracks during World War II. Griffith Observatory is perhaps one of the most well known projects of the Works Progress Administration—the New Deal project begun by FDR in the wake of the Great Depression. The observatory’s famous Astronmer’s Monument was built in connection with the Public Works of Art Project, a division of the WPA which specifically sought to employ artists for the “embellishment” of public buildings. One of the five sculptors on the project, George Stanley, was also the creator of the now infamous Oscar statuette.
Throughout his life Griffith frequently used the title “Colonel”, though there are no official military records of his having achieved this rank. His only record of service was with the California National Guard.
Griffith J. Griffith died of alcohol related liver disease in 1919, leaving the bulk of his fortune to the city of Los Angeles. He is buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Griffith Park is one of the largest urban parks in the United States.