December 16, 1896: Los Angeles Receives Quite the Christmas Gift

Griffith J. Griffith and his wife Christina give Los Angeles 3,015 to use as a public park. Since then, another 1,200 acres have been added making Griffith Park four times larger than San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and five times the size of New York’s Central Park. The park, which has 10 million visitors annually, is the mountainous three-fourths of a 4,071-acre portion of Rancho Los Feliz which Griffith, a wealthy mining consultant, is subdividing. He purchases the land in 1882 for a price estimated between $8,000 and $50,000. Griffith, described in various accounts as “pushy” and “egotistical,” opens a 680-acre ostrich farm on the property in 1885. The “Ostrich Farm Railway” makes it easy for curious Angelenos to travel from downtown to observe the birds firsthand – if they pay a 50-cent admission charge.

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Griffith, a Welsh immigrant, presents the land to the city with one caveat:

“It must be made a place of rest and relaxation for the masses, a resort for the rank and file, for the plain people. I consider it my obligation to make Los Angeles a happy, cleaner and finer city. I wish to pay my debt of duty in this way to the community in which I have prospered.”

Media reports describe Griffith’s donation as a “Christmas gift.”

The rancho los Feliz Ostrich Farm
The Rancho Los Feliz Ostrich Farm

Griffith wants to give the city another “Christmas gift” – money to build an observatory and an outdoor amphitheater – but is rebuffed after he attempts to kill his wife in 1903 while they vacation in Santa Monica. A drunken Griffith believes his wife is trying to poison him and demands she answer some questions. Fearful, Christina Griffith asks if she can pray. She kneels and Griffith shoots her in the head. Jerking to one side at the last moment saves Christina Griffith’s life. Opening the closed window of their hotel room, she pushes herself out and escapes.  She loses her right eye and is disfigured enough that she wears a thick veil when testifying at her husband’s trial for attempted murder. The trial is the focus of intense media attention. Griffith’s lawyers plead alcoholic insanity. The team of special prosecutors is led by former Gov. Henry Gage. Griffith is sentenced to two years in San Quentin. He declines parole and any special treatment, becoming a lecturer on the need for prison reform after his release. His wife files for divorce, which a judge grants  in less than five minutes, setting a record for brevity. Griffith dies of liver disease in 1919, leaving the bulk of his $1.5 million estate to the city for construction of what’s now the Greek Theater and the Griffith Observatory.

For more about Griffith J. Griffith, Griffith park and Los Angeles History in general visit LA as Subject.

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