The Watts Towers

June 23, 2011  •  Leave a Comment

Today’s visit to the Watts Towers in Los Angeles, California, was amazing. The towers are actually a collection of 17 interconnected structures, two of which reach heights of over 99 feet. The Towers were built by an Italian immigrant construction worker by the name of Sabato Rodia. He worked on the pieces during his spare time…spare time that spanned a period of 33 years (from 1921 to 1954)! 

No matter how much this South Los Angeles neighborhood has changed over the years, Watts is remembered for the grainy television images of urban violence in 1965 and 1992. The towers are here because Mr. Rodia settled on a plot of land that was large enough to hold what would eventually become 17 structures. The other plot of land he considered would have been more accessible on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, but this was just as well because the Beverly Hilton was eventually constructed on that site amidst the most fashionable shopping strip in the country.

The work is an example of non-traditional vernacular architecture and American naive art. The towers are considered to be the world’s largest single construction built by one individual. They consist of seventeen sculptures, made out of steel, covered with mortar, and embellished by mosaic tiles, glass, clay, shells, and rock. Instead of a inner armature, Mr. Rodia wired rebars together using nearby railroad tracks as a makeshift vise, then wrapped this joint with wire mesh and hand packed it with mortar and his mosaic surface. He built the structures with no special equipment or predetermined design, working alone with hand tools and window-washer's equipment.

Neighborhood children brought pieces of broken glass and pottery to Rodia, some of which were added, but the majority of his material consisted of damaged pieces from the Malibu Pottery, located nearby. Green glass includes recognizable soft drink bottles from the 1930s through 1950s. Other items came from alongside the railway between Watts and Wilmington. Rodia often walked the railway all the way to Wilmington in search of material (a distance of nearly 20 miles). Rodia reportedly didn’t get along with his neighbors, some of whom allowed their children to vandalize his work. Rumors began circulating that the towers were antennae designed to communicate with enemy Japanese forces, which raised suspicion within the neighborhood, leading to further vandalism. In 1955, Rodia gave the property away and left, reportedly tired of the abuse he had received. He retired to Martinez, California, and never came back. He died nearly a decade later.When the property changed hands, Rodia's bungalow within the enclosure was burned down, and the city of Los Angeles condemned the structure and ordered it razed. Actor Nicholas King and a film editor named William Cartwright visited the site in 1959, saw the neglect, and purchased the property for $3,000 in order to preserve it. When the city found out about the transfer, it decided to perform the demolition before the transfer went through. The towers had already become famous and there was opposition from around the world. King, Cartwright, and museum curator Jim Elliott, along with area architects, artists, and community activists formed the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts. The Committee negotiated with the city to allow for an engineering test to establish the safety of the structures. For the test, steel cable was attached to each tower and a crane was used to exert lateral force. The crane was unable to topple or even shift the towers with the forces applied, and the test was concluded when the crane experienced mechanical failure. The towers are one of nine folk art sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990. The structures suffered minor damage in the North Ridge earthquake in 1994, after which they were repaired and reopened in 2001. The towers were again damaged during a 2008 windstorm and were closed to the public briefly until March 2009. There is also damage from random acts of vandalism. All in all, the towers are a marvel to observe and I hope I captured their magic in my photographs. 

- Jennifer


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