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A Labor of Love: The Watts Towers of Simon Rodia
Peeking up over the humble homes of a South Los Angeles neighborhood, Watts Towers is a world-renowned architectural sculpture. Created single-handedly over 33 years by Italian-born construction worker Sabato Rodia, known alternately as Sam or Simon Rodia, it is a tribute to human vision and tenacity.
Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park
Watts Towers and Art Center
1761-1765 East 107th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90002
www.wattstowers.org (official site not always maintained)
http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=613 (State site)
Tours: On the half hour Thurs- Sat 10:30-3, Sun 12:30-3. Last tour starts at 3. Tours are on a first come basis with maximum tour size 20 people. Rain cancels.
Tour Admission: Adult $7 - Seniors / Children 13-17 $3 - Children 12 & under Free
Metro: Blue Line to 103rd Street/Watts Tower Station - 2 long or four short blocks, depending how you count.
Approaching the towers, their industrial looking profile... reminds me of the radio and TV towers lining the top of Mt. Lee behind the Hollywood Sign. Up close, their whimsy is absolutely magical - a fairyland in an otherwise gritty neighborhood. You can see the structures from outside the fence any time, but you can only go inside on a guided tour. It's worth taking the tour because you really need to get up close to appreciate the workmanship that went into creating this folly. Being inside the towering wonder is much more awe-inspiring than the view from outside.
Rodia, a thrice-divorced father of two, started his masterpiece in 1921 at the age of 42. He had bought a house on a funny triangle of land surrounded by small bungalows, adjacent to an industrial area. His neighbors were predominantly Mexican immigrants, which probably inspired him to name his work Nuestro Pueblo (Our Town in Spanish). The name is inlaid several times into the sculpture. The Mexican neighborhood was probably also responsible for the misspelling of his name as Rodilla in some places, which is pronounced in Spanish like Rodia in Italian (Rodeeya).
A concrete finisher by day, Rodia had no plan or written design, but worked every minute of his spare time for 33 years to finish his masterpiece, which he declared completed in 1954. In 1955 he retired to Martinez, California to be closer to his family.
The installation consists of 17 sculptures including towers, archways, altars, a gazebo, three bird baths and various ship features. Rodia built the towers with a core of structural steel pipes and rods, mostly scrap rebar that he collected along the train tracks. He wrapped the steel in wire mesh, then covered the mesh in concrete mortar and embedded found objects in the soft concrete. Broken shards of pottery, ceramics, colored glass, shells, rocks and other miscellanea were used to create a mosaic over most of the surface, complementing it with designs drawn or pressed into the concrete. Not only the towers and sculptures, but the floor and outer walls are also covered in mosaic and drawn designs.
Rodia used a window-washer's belt to suspend himself from the towers as he worked with simple hand tools. Neighbors remembered him singing Italian arias while working high up on the towers late into the night - not always appreciated. Many thought he was a lunatic.
The overall framework of the towers resembles a three-masted ship with the prow facing east. The tallest tower - which was at its full height by 1937, but not completed until the very end in 1954 - reaches almost 100 feet into the sky and weighs over 32,000 pounds. The western end is buttressed by the two remaining walls of Rodia's cottage, which burned down in 1956, allegedly after fireworks landed on the roof. The first part of the project was most likely the concrete-covered bed frames that make up the walls jutting out from the house, surrounding the towers.
Rodia scrounged materials from the Malibu Pottery and CALCO (California Clay Products Company), located nearby, as well as collecting discarded bottles and accepting bits provided by neighborhood kids. You can see the brand names of broken green 7-Up, Canada Dry and Squirt bottles. In one interview, Rodia claimed that building the towers cured him of his drinking problem, so he had to collect empties from others.
Passing on the Legacy
When Rodia moved away in 1955, he deeded the house and towers to a neighbor who sold it a few months later for $1000. The new owner wanted to develop the property, but the City wanted to tear it down because Rodia built it without a permit. A group of community activists formed the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts and successfully raised funds to buy the towers. However, to prevent demolition, they had to prove that the structure was sound. They devised a stress test using a crane to provide resistance. The test broke the crane but the tower wouldn't budge, so it passed and they got to keep the towers.
In 1961, the Watts Towers Art Center was created to care for the property and provide additional gallery space and art education opportunities to the community. In 1975, the Art Center deeded the property to the City of Los Angeles, who passed it on to the State of California in 1978. Currently, Watts Towers is a State Park, operated by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department.
Watts Towers Restoration
Over the years, the structure has cracked and been repaired numerous times, usually in the same spots, rather than new places. In 2010, the Conservation Center at the LA County Museum of Art and UCLA’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering were called in to help solve the deterioration dilemma and create a more permanent restoration solution.
Testing showed that, in addition to affects of earthquakes and Santa Ana winds, the towers lean an inch to the north every day as the sun warms and expands the concrete on the southern side and opens the cracks. In the evening, the cooling concrete contracts back into place and the cracks come together.
"One major concern is that we are constantly losing decorative elements. " said Dr. Frank Preusser, Senior Research Scientist at LACMA in an interview on KCET's Artbound, "The cement and ornaments heat up differentially. The cement gets hotter than the glass and ceramics."
Now that they understand the problems, conservationists have been devising flexible patch material that allows the towers to flex without cracking.
When asked why he built the towers, Rodia said "Why I build it? I can’t tell you. Why a man make the pants? Why a man make the shoes?” But he wanted to build "something big." Despite detractors along the way, he said, "I build the tower people like...everybody come." I Build the Tower became the title of a 2006 feature-length documentary by Brad Byer, great-nephew of Simon Rodia and Edward Landler, on the man and his towers.
When asked what the hearts incorporated all over the sculpture mean, he replied, "You know."
Watts Towers Art Center
The Watts Towers Art Center hosts temporary exhibits and art classes for the community. There is also a small gift shop and short documentary you can watch about Simon Rodia.
Annual Events at Watts Towers:
Watts Towers Jazz Festival and Day of the Drum at the end of September
Watts Towers are listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and have been designated a National Historic Landmark, a California Historic Landmark and a Los Angeles Historic and Cultural Monument.
Click through the slides above for a photo tour.
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Nuestro Pueblo is the name that Italian immigrant Simon Rodia gave to his massive architectural structure, the Watts Towers, possibly influenced by the surrounding Mexican immigrant neighborhood. The words Nuestro Puebla are inlaid in pottery shards on one of the towers, along with the year 1921.
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Touring the Watts Towers
The best way to see the Watts Towers is on a guided tour that takes you inside the wall and into the towers. Tours are available Thursday through Saturday 10:30 to 3 and Sunday noon to 3 pm. There are no tours Monday through Wednesday, holidays or rainy days.
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The overall structure of the Watts Towers resembles a three-masted ship. This view shows the prow view, which can only be seen from inside the outer walls.
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Prow View of Watts Towers
Detail of the mosaic prow of the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, CA. The concrete floor is carved with hand drawings. You can see where seashells decorating the wall and the pole above the ship's prow have been damaged or gone missing over time.
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Watts Towers Bird Bath
There are three bird baths incorporated in the 17 sculptures that make up the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, CA. This one has apparently been repaired, but the tiles were not restored or replaced.
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Watts Towers Hearts
Arches linked with hearts connect two towers in the Watts Towers. Simon Rodia incorporated hearts all over the Watts Towers, including on the walls and pavement. When asked what the hearts represent, he responded, "You know!"
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Inside the Watts Towers
From inside the Watts Towers you can see the arched gazebo that resembles a bird cage and another sculpture that looks like a giant confetti wedding cake.
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Walls of the Watts Tower
Simon Rodia built the walls of the Watts Towers by lining up a row of old bed frames, covering them in concrete and decorating them with found objects and designs. Each panel has its own unique design, with no two alike. This panel shows where Rodia included imprints of his work tools and signed his initials SR. Some panels are full mosaic, some include pressed patterns and others free-hand drawing in concrete or stucco.
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Damage to the Watts Towers
Over the years, the Watts Towers have been damaged by vandalism, stray balls from the park next door, earthquakes, winds, and the daily movement of the towers as they expand and contract with the sun. Although parts or the tower have been repaired or restored, damage is clearly visible.
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Watts Towers Art Center
The Watts Towers Art Center in South Los Angeles administers the Watts Towers, offers tours of the sculptures and has a public gallery and art classes for the community.
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Watts Towers Art Center Mural
Mosaic mural on the side of the Watts Towers Art Center at the Watts Towers in South Los Angeles, CA
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Watts Towers Art Gallery
The Art Gallery at the Watts Towers in South Los Angeles, CA. Exhibits include a collection of musical instruments from around the world, and temporary exhibits by local artists.
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Watts Towers in Context
Simon Rodia's Watts Towers are located in the humble Watts neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles, CA best known for the 6-day Watts Riots in 1965. Still plagued with gang activity in some areas, it is generally safe to visit the Watts Towers.
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