One man’s 33 year obsession produces an iconic piece of folk art along with an incredible back story.
Watts Towers consists of seventeen major sculptures constructed of structural steel and covered with mortar, adorned with a diverse mosaic of broken glass, sea shells, generic pottery and tile, a rare piece of 19th-century, hand painted Canton ware and many pieces of 20th-century American ceramics. Built without benefit of machine equipment, scaffolding, bolts, rivets, welds or drawing board designs – besides his own ingenuity, Sam/Simon Rodia used simple tools, pipe fitter pliers and a window-washer’s belt and buckle.
The Watts Towers Arts Center is an adjacent community arts center that was opened in 1970.
Watts Love Got To Do, Got To Do With It?
The Towers were built by Italian immigrant construction worker Sabato (“Sam” or “Simon”) Rodia (1879-1965) in his spare time over a period of 33 years, from 1921 to 1954. The work is an example of non-traditional vernacular architecture and American naïve art.
Rodia called the towers Nuestro Pueblo, meaning “our town.” Rodia built them with no special equipment or (so far as is known) predetermined design, working alone with hand tools and window-washer’s equipment. Neighborhood children (including jazz bassist Charles Mingus) 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.
The towers are here because Mr. Rodia settled on a plot of land that was large enough to hold what would be 17 structures in his installation. The other plot he considered was on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills where the Beverly Hilton now sits.
Mosiac wall created by the Watts Towers Arts Center.
Rodia bent much of the Towers’ framework from scrap rebar, using nearby railroad tracks as a makeshift vise. Other items came from alongside the Pacific Electric Railway right of way between Watts and Wilmington.
Nuestro Pueblo is what Sam called his installation. His old bungalow sat behind this wall before it was torched to the ground.
Green glass includes recognizable soft drink bottles from the 1930s through 1950s, some still bearing the former logos of 7 Up, Squirt, Bubble Up, and Canada Dry; blue glass appears to be from milk of magnesia bottles.
The structures suffered minor damage in the Northridge earthquake in 1994, after which they were repaired and reopened in 2001. The tallest of his towers stands 99½ feet and contains the longest slender reinforced concrete column in the world.
Around 1954, Rodia had had enough of Watts. Lack of respect and misunderstanding led to vandalism of his Towers. His construction was, in the politically and racially charged 1930s and ‘40s, viewed with suspicion. During World War II, rumors spread that Rodia’s towers transmitted secrets to the Japanese. Later on, it was feared they were relaying secrets to the Communists. What had begun as an inspired vision became, for Rodia, a burden. He deeded his property to his neighbor, Louis H. Saucedo, and disappeared.
The stairway to folk art heaven.
His signature and the tools he used are imprinted within the wall.
Rodia incorporated hearts throughout his installation.
The towers are built in the outline of a ship and the ship is pointing back to Italy. It was said that he did this so that when it was time for him to sail back to Italy he would have all of his possession’s and memories with him. The exterior of the structure has a wave like art to show that the ship is in motion and between two of the three towers is what Simon liked to call the sail.
A committee preserved the towers independently until 1975, when it deeded the site to the City of Los Angeles, which in turn deeded it to the State of California in 1978. Rodia’s bungalow inside the enclosure (only 5 feet away from the towers) was burned down and the city of Los Angeles condemned the structure and ordered it razed.
A mural across from the towers.
A few of the houses in the hood across the street have art painted on them and mosiac tile walls.
Despite the media attention, Rodia remained distant. He was no longer interested in The Towers. They were, for him, in the past. Nonetheless, he was coaxed out of hiding in 1961, when his work was publicly honored on two occasions, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and at the University of California, Berkeley. After answering questions and demonstrating his construction techniques, Rodia received a standing ovation from the crowd. He would die quietly four years later in Martinez, California.
A man in the park plays classical Italian music on his accordion, a perfect soundtrack to honor the Italian immigrant who spent a large portion of his life building the iconic structures that rise before him.