Structure Type: built works - social and civic buildings - monuments
Designers: Sabato Rodia (sculptor)
Dates: constructed 1921-1955
Italian-American Sabato "Simon" Rodia migrated to the US c. 1885, settling first in PA, and drifting West from there. He married in Seattle, WA, by 1912, and had saved enough money by 1921 to purchase a triangular parcel on land in the Watts Neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA, what he called "Nuestro Pueblo." At this time, Los Angeles had one of the highest rates of single-family home ownership in the US. Soon after moving in, he began work on this remarkable complex of ironwork structures. Neighbors thought Rodia mad, and most did not appreciate the effort. He worked gradually on his project until 1954, when he gave his land to a neighbor, Luis Sauceda; Sauceda sold the property to another man, Joseph Montoya, a dairy worker, who hoped to use the towers as a setting for a taco shop he hoped to open, but never did. By the mid-1950s, the Los Angeles City Department of Building and Safety sought to condemn the towers, saying that they were a safety hazard. The threat of demolition aroused some consternation in the city and elsewhere. Writer and journalist Ernest Leogrande, a New York resident, wrote in a Los Angeles Times editorial of 07/09/1956: "I'd like to know if anyone in Los Angeles agrees with me here in New York that these towers should be preserved. To destroy them would be to destroy a great potential tourist attraction. The primary reason that they should not be destroyed is because it would be destroying the life's work of a true American artist." (See Ernest Leogrande, "Tower Lover," Los Angeles Times, 07/09/1956, p. B4.) Gradually, a preservation effort coalesced. By the late decade, two young men--actor Nicholas King (1933-2012) and film editor William Cartwright--pooled $3,000 (with a $20 deposit) to buy the property from Montoya to preserve the artwork. King and Cartwright donated the land to the newly-formed Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts. The Committee effectively publicized the towers' plight, so much so that an article of 12/11/1959, referred to "...the bizarre Watts Towers which have become world-famed as a work of unschooled art...." (See "Bizarre Watts Towers to be Opened to the Public," Los Angeles Times, 12/11/1959, p. 29.) Articles published in the Los Angeles Times during the course of 1959 indicated a rising level of awareness and appreciation for Rodia's work. The committee held the land in trust from 1959-1975, when it donated the property to the City of Los Angeles, which, in turn, transferred responsibility for maintenance to the State of CA in 1978. The State of CA returned the responsibility to the City of LA's Cultural Affairs Department in 1985; the city renovated the towers between 1995-2001.
Kenneth Reich, in a 2001 Los Angeles Times article, described the Watts Towers: "Built between 1921 and 1955 by unschooled Italian immigrant Sabato Rodia (c.1879-1965), the 17 structures of rebar and scrap steel are lashed together with wire, wrapped in wire mesh, coated with concrete and decorated with rocks, glazed tiles, broken pottery, seashells and shards of colored glass bottles." (See Kenneth Reich, "An Icon Restored, Reopened," Los Angeles Times, 09/29/2001, p. B3.) Of the novice builder Rodia, Reich wrote: "Rodia, who died in 1965, completed all the work in his spare time, without bolts, rivets or welds. He used no scaffolding, climbing as high as 100 feet with tools attached to a belt and building materials in a bucket or burlap bag." Rodia did many jobs over the years, including as a cement finisher and construction worker, skills that enabled him to produce stable, well-finished structures. He also labored as a telephone line repairman, providing him the climbing skills needed to work high up in the air. Richard Cándida Smith observed of the towers: "The towers suggest both church spires and the modern skyscraper; the stalagmites, both the natural forms of a cactus garden and miniature apartment buildings; the arbor and incised designs speak interchangeably of parks, the industrial work of automobile parts and construction tools, agriculture, and pure purposeless beauty. Possible folk roots of the towers and ship may be ceremonial towers of wood and ribbon used for the Festa de Gigli, celebrating San Gennaro, the patron saint of Nola. Yet Rodia's forms, colors, and techniques are unique. Rather than nostalgically recreating memories from his early childhood, he reflected upon the rapidly changing world of the laboring immigrant." (See Richard Cándida Smith, "Rodia, Simon,"
Following the Northridge Earthquake of 1994, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funded a $1.9 seismic retrofit and restoration of the Watts Towers. Restoration occurred over seven years, officially finishing on 09/28/2001 with a lighting ceremony attended by Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn (b. 07/03/1950). In 2001, however, funding for the tower's continued maintenance was still lacking.
The City of Los Angeles, pressured by local homeowners, sought the demolition of the towers as a structural hazard c. 1959. Supporters of the towers proved its stability with the structure's passing of a 10,000-pound stress test.
PCAD id: 1575