At long last, Griffith Park gets its own exhibition

| January 31, 2019 | 0 Comments
HOLLYWOOD SIGN can be seen from the park.
Photo by Tom LaBonge

How well do you think you know Griffith Park? Well, did you know that there was once an airfield inside the park? Or how about a speakeasy for golfers during the Great Depression? You probably knew about the ostrich farm, right? And the prison farm? Or what about that small town, called Rodger Young Village, which housed over 6,000 people (military veterans and their families) for seven years after World War II?

Left: QUONSET HUTS were all-purpose, prefabricated buildings made of corrugated steel that were built in Rodger Young Village (1947-1954) for military veterans and their families after WWII. Each home was 80 feet x 20 feet. An unfurnished unit cost $34 per month. Open to all veterans, Rodger Young Village became one of the most racially diverse neighborhoods in Los Angeles during this era.

Do you know about its darker history? That thousands of Los Angeles citizens of Japanese ancestry were sent to a detention camp in Griffith Park after the bombing of Pearl Harbor? Or that a Memorial Day riot erupted at the Merry-go-Round in 1961 when an African-American youth, after having challenged the practice of reserving the Merry-go-Round for white families, was accused of boarding the ride without a ticket? You surely know that Griffith Park, clocking in at more than 4,200 acres, dwarfs Manhattan’s 840-acre Central Park, right?

125th anniversary

If you didn’t know these things, and even if you did, you’re in for a treat: As the park readies for its 125th anniversary in 2021, The Autry Museum of the American West, which resides in Griffith Park, has decided to give the park its well-deserved due, creating a community-driven, permanent exhibition that explores the creation, history, nature, wildlife and usage of one of the world’s great city parks.

“We were looking at ideas for our next exhibition,” says Carolyn Brucken, Senior Curator and Curator of Western Women’s History, “and we thought, ‘let’s look in our own backyard’ as a way to talk about California, its history and its people.”

As that germ of an idea grew, the scope of the project grew with it, leading to the current “Investigating Griffith Park” temporary exhibition.

PANORAMIC SHOT shows Phase I of the exhibition. Griffith Park is readying for its 125th anniversary.

Community input

“We realized that we needed the community’s input to create it,” says Brucken, “so we decided we should start a conversation about the history and meaning of Griffith Park, and we would build out by getting input from the hundreds of visitors who come to the museum every day.”

The first phase of the exhibition, known as “Phase I: Discovery,” is up and running as we speak. Visitors to the museum can currently walk through a temporary gallery, exploring pictures, objects and history, while also participating in discussions, archiving their own memories of the park, showcasing ideas, and partaking in hands-on activities in order to explore, test ideas and share thoughts with the museum as the staff investigates what makes Griffith Park a unique part of Los Angeles.

COLLAGE of birthday posters “left behind” have been gathered by museum staff.

“We are in the incubator phase,” says Sarah Wilson, Education Curator. “And this is very unusual for a museum to do this type of exhibition outreach. The process for creating and developing exhibitions usually happens underground and behind closed doors.

“We want to make this input multigenerational,” continues Wilson. “We want to create a space for people to interact and to engage, whether they are two years old or 92 years old.”

“Nine-year-olds have just as strong opinions as adults,” laughs Brucken.

Donated in 1896

The park’s original 3,000 acres were donated to the city of Los Angeles by Griffith J. Griffith and Christina Griffith in 1896, on the condition that the land be used as a free public park. “It must be made a place of recreation and rest for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people,” directed Griffith for his donation.

Today, Griffith Park includes a 1926 Spillman carousel, pony rides, multiple golf courses, several rare wild gray foxes, coyotes, deer, coast horned lizards, rattlesnakes, the Greek Theatre, Griffith Park Observatory, Travel Town trains, the Los Angeles Zoo, rare plant species, the Hollywood sign, a bachelor mountain lion known as P-22, and over 53 miles of hiking trails.

“IF YOU LOOK out from Mt. Hollywood, you can see four national forests,” says former City Councilman Tom LaBonge.

Hiker LaBonge

“I’ve hiked there every day for the last 41 years,” says former 4th District City Councilman Tom LaBonge, who grew up in the shadow of Griffith Park and wakes up each morning to catch the sunrise above the city. “If you look out from Mt. Hollywood, you can see four national forests: the Los Padres National Forest, the Angeles National Forest, the San Bernardino National Forest and the Cleveland National Forest.”

During his many morning hikes, LaBonge has run into everyone from local friends to former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

SIERRA CLUB leader Larry Guzin, front left, and a group of hikers take a break en route to Mt. Hollywood

Larry Guzin

Another avid local hiker is Windsor Square Association President Larry Guzin, who chooses the evening hours to trek the park.

“When I get to the top of Mt. Hollywood,” says Guzin, “I can see the wonderful canopy of trees that covers Larchmont, Windsor Square and Hancock Park.”

Guzin, like LaBonge, also grew up with the park at his doorstep.

“I ran cross country in high school through the park, earned Boy Scout merit badges in the park, and even used the park to train for nine treks through the Himalayas.” For the last decade, Guzin has led over 300 Sierra Club hikes throughout the park two times per week.

“Griffith Park is hallowed ground,” says Guzin. “This is a town with many, many amusements, but for those of us who like to walk, we become devotees and hope other people will want to walk and take advantage of the wilderness in such a major metropolis.”

ANIMALS Section of Phase I showcases and provides information on the different animals that reside in Griffith Park, including a hippopotamus (who resides in the zoo, of course!)

Exhibit Phase I

These are the stories and observations that curators Brucken and Wilson want to hear. The Autry’s Phase I includes Question and Answer boards such as “What is a Park to You?” and “What Do You Like To Do in Griffith Park?” The answers from anonymous visitors are as varied as “A reminder that we are nature,” to “A place my kids can play free and explore their abilities…” to “a place where my ancestors once walked. We are on native land.”

Walking through Phase I, visitors will see information on the park’s history, both known and lost, wildlife, native plants, the Tongva Native Americans, and even the movie industry, where Griffith Park holds the honor of playing background in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1913 silent feature film “The Squaw Man,” which gave birth to Hollywood and the Southern California film industry.

Phases II and III

“‘A rock is a rock, a tree is a tree. Shoot it in Griffith Park,’ goes an old Hollywood industry saying,” reads one sign in the exhibition.

The community’s answers to Phase I’s questions will lead to Phase II of the exhibition, which will involve “idea testing” based on the previous community input. The final phase, Phase III, the permanent exhibition, will open in connection with the 125th anniversary of Griffith Park in 2021-2022.

“This is an ongoing, living space,” says Brucken. “You can use Griffith Park to explore all of California history and politics.”

As Ruben Martinez of the “Los Angeles Times” once noted, “The history of Griffith Park is a faithful mirror for the history of the city.”

GRIFFITH OBSERVATORY with a view of the city skyline.
Photo by Tom LaBonge

While exploring the history of the park, the curators at the Autry also want to build up Griffith Park’s archives. “There is very little published about Griffith Park,” explains Brucken. “We want to encourage research and preserve everything for future scholars, students and the community.”

The future of the park weighs heavily on everyone’s minds.

“Personally,” says Guzin, “I would like to emphasize keeping the park a wilderness — to discourage human intervention other than maintenance.”

LaBonge also encourages thoughtful planning on behalf of the park.

“Public parks are very important and special,” says LaBonge. “Our parks will be used more and more in the future, and we need to join groups, like the Los Angeles Parks Foundation, to support our parks… [and] I’d like to give a big 10-gallon ‘hats off’ to the Autry Museum for its inclusivity of outreach for this exhibition.”

For more information on Investigating Griffith Park or to submit your own ideas about the exhibition, visit the museum itself or go to

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