by Neal Matthews
“Ambition must have broad spaces and mighty distances,” wrote Col. Griffith Jenkins Griffith when he offered the city of Los Angeles $100,000 in 1912 to build the astronomical observatory in his namesake park. The money was refused.
He was only a Hollywood Colonel, having reached the modest rank of “major” running rifle drills for the California National Guard. The observatory offer came a few years after he’d served time in San Quentin for shooting his wife in the head (she survived and was granted a divorce), but now he was a changed man, still in possession of his fortune, and he felt his efforts to improve the park were partial repayment of his debt to society.
Griffith saw the opening of the heavens to the common people as a furtherance of his 1896 “Christmas gift” to the City of Los Angeles, opening five square miles of rugged ridges and shaded canyons at the eastern terminus of the Santa Monica Mountains. This constituted the majority of his Rancho de los Feliz, which was originally part of a 6,647-acre land grant to Cpl. Jose Vicente Feliz, who helped lead the first Spanish colonists to the Pueblo of Los Angeles in 1775-76. But in 1903 Griffith, the beloved philanthropist, transmuted into an alcohol-crazed rapscallion, and while the largest municipal park in the country retained his name, Mt. Griffith was re-christened Mt. Hollywood while he was in prison. For good measure, Griffith’s offer of $50,000 to build the Greek Theater was also rejected.
So the former reporter and mining correspondent, who became wealthy advising mining syndicates, placed most of his money into a trust , directing it to go toward funding the theater and observatory after his death, which occurred in 1919. His vision for the park outlasted his enemies; using Griffith’s trust money, the Greek Theater was completed in 1930, the Griffith Observatory in 1935. Both are civic treasures, and who doesn’t love Col. Griffith now?