Posted by: Brad Nixon | September 21, 2016

Simon Rodia’s Vision: Watts Towers

You have much to do when you come to Los Angeles: Swim, surf, ride everything at Disneyland or Universal Studios (or both!), see the Chinese Theater and Groucho’s star on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, pretend you’re seriously shopping for jewelry along Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. You want to hike in the mountains of the Angeles National Forest (good idea) then see the Griffith Planetarium, the Hollywood sign, the La Brea Tar Pits, F. L. Wright’s Hollyhock House, swing through downtown to catch Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall and the Bradbury Building before finding that Dim Sum place you read about in Bon Appetit and maybe spot a STAR!

A metropolis that covers 5,000 square miles from 10,000-foot mountains to ocean beaches requires a lot of energy and time to visit. You have to plan carefully.

If you’re in LA to sample its inexhaustible variety of architecture, museums, art and culture, one place might serve for all. A unique, monumental work of architectonic art created by an inspired visionary: Watts Towers.

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In the category of “only in LA,” Watts Towers looms as an unforgettable landmark.

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In 1921, Sabato “Simon” Rodia, a 42 year-old tile setter who’d come from Italy as a teenager, bought a triangular plot of land in working-class Watts. He started building. Building what? Rodia once said, “I wanted to do something big … and I did it.”

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Rodia dug trenches and anchored vertical steel reinforcing bar (rebar) in concrete. He wired more rebar to those uprights, piece after piece, erecting towers. Immense towers, the tallest one 99-1/2 feet high. He reinforced them with flying buttresses of more steel and wove around them fanciful arcing hoops of steel.

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Working constantly in his time away from his day jobs, through 34 years of painstaking labor, he covered the metal armatures with a concrete mixture he’d devised himself. He poured floors composed of concrete he’d tinted green, gold, tan and red. Click on any of the photos to enlarge and advance through the floor gallery.

He decorated everything, from the floor to the highest finial with found objects: ceramics, bottles, seashells (10,000 of them), rocks, cast-off household wares picked up along the railroad tracks or donated by neighborhood children. Click on an image in the next gallery for a full screen view and follow the arrows for successive images.

He shaped forms in molds (e.g. corn, above) and applied them, or impressed tools and objects into fine-grained concrete set in walls, floors and the ribs of the structures. Here’s a gallery of the arches of the south wall featuring impressions of Rodia’s own hand tools. Click an image to begin full view.

Rodia worked entirely alone, bending and wiring steel, mixing concrete, decorating. He climbed with his tools in a belt, carrying concrete, mortar and objects in a bucket. Into his 70s he climbed his towers, hand over hand, without ladders or scaffolding, nearly a hundred feet in the air above Watts.

In 1955, he walked away. He signed a quit-claim to his property and gave it to his friend, a neighbor. Weary of battling the city for permits, frustrated by vandalism and, one hopes, satisfied with what he’d done, he never returned and died in 1965. He left us Nuestra Puebla, “our town,” his name for what we know as Watts Towers.

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Rodia’s towers are classified as “folk art.” That they’re art is incontestible; they have no purpose other than to express something Rodia had in his mind, although they don’t fit neatly alongside things you see in a museum or a gallery. They are sui generis: their own museum, a gallery consisting only of themselves. That, to me, is what is so marvelous about Nuestra Puebla: It is something Rodia simply wanted to make — in some profound way he was compelled to make it — which is, in my view, the definition of art. It’s not about anything: It simply stands. It is.

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In all, 17 structures comprise an entity with shape, flow and passion. Then, examining the surface, your eye is drawn by the 100,000 objects Rodia embedded, each of which has its own shape, color and appeal. Somehow, Rodia managed to make it a whole, not kitsch. He built a world.

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As an engineer and innovator, Rodia was a master, working entirely from his imagination with no drawings or plans. With no formal training, he assembled his ambitious structures in the simplest of fashions (no welding, for example), yet the towers withstood a determined attempt to pull them down when the city intended to demolish them in 1959. They went unscathed through significant earthquakes in 1933 and 1994. The charming incised concrete floors are still intact and almost uncracked after more than 60 years.

And, he climbed those seemingly lacy, fragile hoops, day after day (often late into the night).

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A 12-minute film from 1957, “The Towers,” includes interview comments by Rodia, and shows him climbing the tower in his 70s, near the end of his time in Watts. CLICK HERE.

Rodia knew something of what he was going to build from the outset. He specifically looked for a triangular piece of land for Nuestra Puebla. The best guess is that it’s a ship with a line of tall masts, sailing east, toward Italy (Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus were two of his heroes, as were Michelangelo and DaVinci). There’s a literal prow at the easternmost tip of the complex.

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Sail on, then, Sabato, masts soaring above you. What did you see from your perch high over the streets and the Red Cars, the railroad tracks and the bungalows as LA grew; the Depression, wars and time passed? Safe passage, Simon Rodia. Viaggio sicuro. Grazie.

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For one additional image of the tallest tower, CLICK HERE.

Visiting Watts Towers

The Watts Towers site is easy to reach by car or via LA Metro Rail Blue Line: the 103rd St./Watts Towers stop. The nearest freeway access is I-105, exit at Wilmington and drive north about 1 mile to a left on Santa Ana Blvd. There is some parking on narrow, residential 107th St., the towers entrance. If not, there will almost certainly be street parking (free for 2 hours) along Santa Ana on the north side of the towers.

The site is now Simon Rodia State Park and is managed by the Watts Towers Art Center (click for link). 1727 East 107th Street, Los Angeles, California 90002. Phone: +1.213.847.4646.

Rodia’s structures are enclosed by a security fence which does allow some viewing. Admission is via a guided tour, available only Thursday through Sunday. There’s a modest admission fee, well worth it. CLICK HERE for details.

© Brad Nixon 2017. Some photos © Marcy Vincent 2017 as marked, used by kind permission.

Some of the photographs in this post and select images from Under Western Skies are available on Shutterstock.com. CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky image portfolio.

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Responses

  1. That’s amazing!

    Like

  2. It’s great to finally see pictures – I heard about these on the radio a few years ago and was fascinated by the story, including the pressure Mr Rodia had been put under to stop his construction. And as occasionally happens, what was at the time an act which went against the will of the establishment at the time has now become a treasure the establishment is proud of!

    Like


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