Watts Towers

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Built by Italian immigrant construction worker Sabato ("Sam" or "Simon") Rodia in his spare time over a period of 33 years, Nuestro Pueblo, commonly called the Watts Towers, in the Watts district of Los Angeles, California, are a collection of 17 interconnected structures, two of which reach a height of over 99 feet (30 m). They were started in 1921 and Rodia completed them in 1954.

"I had in mind to do something big and I did it."
Simon Rodia

Design and construction

The Watts Towers, 1765 East 107th St., Los Angeles
The Watts Towers, 1765 East 107th St., Los Angeles

The sculptures' armatures are constructed from steel pipes and rods, wrapped with wire mesh, coated with mortar. The main supports are embedded with pieces of porcelain, tile and glass. They are decorated with found objects: bed frames, bottles, ceramic tile, scrap metal and sea shells. Rodia called the towers "Nuestro Pueblo," meaning "our town." Rodia built them with no special equipment or a design, working alone with hand tools and window-washer's equipment. Neighborhood children brought pieces of broken glass and pottery to Rodia in hopes they would be added to the project, but the majority of Rodia's material consisted of damaged pieces from the Malibu Pottery, where he worked for many years. Green glass includes recognizable soft drink bottles, some still bearing the logos of 7 Up, Squirt, Bubble-Up, and Canada Dry; blue glass appears to be from milk of magnesia bottles.

Rodia bent up much of the Towers' framework from scrap rebar, using nearby railroad tracks as a sort of makeshift vise.

Other items came from alongside the Pacific Electric Railway right-of-way between Watts and Wilmington. Rodia often walked the right-of-way all the way to Wilmington in search of material, a distance of nearly 20 miles (32 km).

Rodia did not get along with his neighbors, who allowed their children to vandalize his work. Rumors that the towers were antennae for communicating enemy Japanese forces, or contained buried treasure, caused suspicion and further vandalism. In 1955 he gave the property away and left, tired of the abuse he had received. He retired to Martinez, California, and never came back. He died a decade later.

After Rodia

close-up of the mosaic decoration
close-up of the mosaic decoration

The property changed hands, Rodia's shack inside the enclosure burned down, and the City of Los Angeles condemned the structure and ordered it razed. An actor, Nicholas King, and a film editor, William Cartwright, visited the site in 1959, saw the neglect and decided to buy the property for $3,000 in order to preserve it. When the city found out about the transfer they decided to perform the demolition themselves. The towers had already become famous and there was opposition from around the world. King, Cartwright, and a curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 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, and the test was concluded when the crane experienced mechanical failure.

The Committee preserved the towers independently until 1975 when it deeded the site to the City of Los Angeles, which deeded it to the State of California in 1978. It is now designated the Simon Rodia State Historical Park. It is operated by City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department. The towers are one of nine folk art sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and one of only four National Historic Landmarks in Los Angeles.

The steel, concrete and glass folk art structures were undamaged during the 1965 Watts riots. However, the towers did suffer minor damage in the 1994 Northridge Earthquake, but were repaired and later reopened to the public in 2001.

The Watts Towers Arts Center is a community arts center that was opened in 1970.

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