Sarah and I went to see the Watts Towers, something I had read about online, but as of yet had not convinced any of my friends to go see with me. My sell of, “Uh they’re these towers…” wasn’t very convincing. However, Sarah was game to go check them out, so we could find out exactly what they were.
When we got there, we were like, “this is a little ghetto.” It’s obviously a poor neighborhood. Dogs just roamed loose around the park.
Here’s what we learned: Simon Rodia was an Italian who immigrated to America at the beginning of the 20th century. Working as a cement worker and tile setter, in 1917 he purchased this triangle-shaped lot in LA. For 33 years Rodia worked in his free time to construct the Watts Towers, what he called “Nuestro Pueblo” (Our Town). Nuestro Pueblo comprises 17 interconnected structures: 3 main towers (98 ft, 97 ft, 55 ft) and 14 spires. Most of the Towers’ framework is made from scrap rebar. Rodia would bend the steel using the nearby railroad tracks as a makeshift vise. He used no scaffolding, machine equipment, welds, etc., only simple tools, pipe fitter pliers, and window-washer’s belt and buckle. And yet the tallest tower contains the longest slender reenforced concrete column in the world. Rodia would build each tower by digging a shallow trench, filling it with cement, and embedding four upright columns. As the towers grew, he encircled the support beams with rungs, which he would then climb ladder-style to attach the next rung, decreasing the diameter with each one until the tower finished at a narrow point. He solidified the joints using wire mesh and mortar. For stability he built more than 150 flying buttresses. When the city subjected the towers to a stress test, the crane applying the force broke before any towers did.
‘ “At a hundred percent load — ten thousand pounds — Goldstone[a former aerospace engineer]’s instruments showed a horizontal deflection of the tower amounting to only one and a quarter inches,” the New Yorker reported. “The only perceptible effect on the tower was that one sliver of concrete or mosaic tinkled to the deck.” ‘
[Rodia on his towers.]
Rodia would then cover the iron bars in mesh, coat them with hand-mixed cement, and decorate using an eclectic assortment of found objects: shells, rocks, glass, tile, porcelain, bed frames, bottles, and scrap metal. In search of material, Rodia would walk nearly 20 miles down the Pacific Electric Railway right of way. Sometimes neighborhood children would bring pieces of broken glass and pottery to Rodia, but most of his material was damaged pieces from nearby Malibu Pottery or California Clay Products Company. Green glass came from recognizable soda bottles from the ’30s to ’50s: 7 Up, Squirt, Bubble Up, and Canada Dry. Blue glass was from milk of magnesia bottles. Designs in the mortar were hand drawn; flower-like imprints were made with a faucet handle.
Asked why he built Nuestro Pueblo, Simon Rodia answered, “I wanted to do something big and I did it.” Speculators credit inspiration to the festival towers of Nola, Italy, and the Pique Assiette mosaic style Rodia would have seen in his native country.
The towers are now seen as an example of prodigious Naive Art, or Urban Folk Art, but at the time they caused suspicion from his neighbors. Rumors that the towers were antennae for communicating with enemy Japanese or contained buried treasure lead to repeated vandalism. In 1955, tired of the community’s abuse, Rodia deeded the property to a neighbor and retired to Martinez, California. Rodia never returned. He died a decade later.
Walking around the Watts Towers conjured images of a mosaic fantasy land. Whimsical and romantic, it seemed something far more likely to be found dreamed up in a Disney fairytale than in South Los Angeles between Inglewood and Compton. We were too late for a tour, but I wish I could have entered the towers- to literally stand within a man’s dream, brought to life by only his persistance, ingenuity, and two hands. Watts Towers is a hidden jewel within Los Angeles, well worthy of a visit.
Tours of the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia
Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 10:30 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. and Sundays from 12:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.
General Admission: $7.00; Seniors and Youth 13-17 years: $3.00; Children 12 and younger: FREE
Twenty visitors per tour. All tours are conducted by docents and are on a first-come, first-served basis. No tours on rainy days. Smoking, eating, or drinking inside or near the Towers fenced area is prohibited. Admission fees, days, and times are subject to change without notice. Public tours begin at 11:00 a.m. on Thursdays and Fridays when there is a pre-scheduled Visiting School Workshop.
Call 213.847.4646 for more information about the Watts Towers Arts Center-Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center Campus events, classes, and about our Visiting Schools Program and Large Group Tour arrangements.