Griffith J. Griffith Shows His Metal--at Griffith Park

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marty Tregnan has rolled his eyes at people's guesses about the origins of Griffith Park's name. Must have been D.W. Griffith, he'd hear them say. Maybe Andy Griffith. Or even--and this would really get Tregnan sputtering--Merv Griffin.

"I says that's too much. Damn it all, we've got to give it to the man who really did it," Tregnan said Saturday at a ceremony honoring the right Griffith.

Now anyone driving by the Los Feliz Boulevard and Riverside Drive entrance of the park will know that it was Col. Griffith J. Griffith who gave his name--and his land--to what is now the nation's largest urban municipal park.

There, in all his portly, button-straining splendor, stands Griffith in the form of a 14-foot bronze statue. The sculpture was unveiled just a few weeks short of the 100th anniversary of the date Griffith offered 3,015 hilly acres to the city of Los Angeles.

"Public parks are a safety valve of great cities," states the Griffith quote on the statue's granite base, "and should be accessible and attractive, where neither race, creed nor color should be excluded."

A Welsh immigrant who made his fortune in mining, Griffith was, to put it nicely, a complicated man.

On the one hand, his gift preserved a rugged patch of nature for the public.

With some 10 million visitors a year, the park is a remarkable--if by now somewhat worn and financially pressed--city recreation area. Golfers, hikers, bikers, young pony-ride and merry-go-round fans, cruising gay men: All frequent the park, finding in it respite from the city that now sprawls below.

Whatever his other motives--some saw his donation as a tax dodge--Griffith had a vision greater than the city fathers of the day, who dawdled in accepting his offer and then seemed to value it primarily for the water rights they gained because the tract bordered the Los Angeles River.

But there was another side to the colonel. Described by one park historian as "pompous, eccentric and vain," he committed a scandalously brutal crime in 1903, seven years after the park was born.

Vacationing with his wife, Mary Agnes Christina Mesmer, in Santa Monica, Griffith got drunk and in a fit of spite and jealousy, shot her point blank in the face. She survived, blinded in one eye, and stayed with him until he died in 1919 at age 67.

He spent a year in prison for the shooting and after his release made further gifts to the city, willing more land for the park, which now totals 4,107 acres, as well as a substantial trust fund for its upkeep and for building an observatory and theater. Money from that trust paid for the $100,000 sculpture by Jonathan Bickart.

On Nov. 23, Griffith's good side was celebrated.

Under a bright sun and deep-blue sky, he was memorialized for his generosity and for his remembrance of the "plain people," as he called those he hoped would use the park.

"I don't care what the heck he was," Tregnan, one of three who administer the Griffith Park Trust, said in an interview. "The park is a park for everybody."

After speeches from Tregnan and city representatives, the statue was unveiled to applause and a few siren rounds from the fire ladder truck used to hoist the covering.

The project has been eight years in the making. It took four years to get city approval, Tregnan said, and another four before the sculpture was completed.

Bickart said he proposed a 9-foot bust of the colonel. But that was a bit too bold for the trustees, who include Griffith's great-grandson, Griffith Van Griffith, who was on hand for the unveiling.

Instead, a more conventional pose was chosen of a full-figure Griffith, dressed in the finery of his day.

Bickart worked from a few photographs of Griffith, along with details provided by Van Griffith, going through a laborious 65-step process to complete the piece.

Given Griffith's vanity, Bickart said, "I think he would have enjoyed this himself."

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