Watts Towers of Simon Rodia
Simon Rodia State Historic Park
California Historical Landmark No. 993
|Location||1765 E. 107th Street, Los Angeles, California 90002|
|NRHP reference No.||77000297|
|Added to NRHP||April 13, 1977|
|Designated NHL||December 14, 1990|
|Designated CHISL||August 17, 1990|
|Designated LAHCM||March 1, 1963|
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The Watts Towers, Towers of Simon Rodia, or Nuestro Pueblo ("our town" in Spanish) are a collection of 17 interconnected sculptural towers, architectural structures, and individual sculptural features and mosaics within the site of the artist's original residential property in Watts, Los Angeles. The entire site of towers, structures, sculptures, pavement and walls were designed and built solely by Sabato ("Simon") Rodia (1879–1965), an Italian immigrant construction worker and tile mason, over a period of 33 years from 1921 to 1954. The tallest of the towers is 99.5 feet (30.3 m). The work is an example of outsider art (or Art Brut) and Italian-American naïve art.
The Watts Towers were designated a National Historic Landmark and a California Historical Landmark in 1990. They are also a Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument, and one of nine folk art sites listed in the National Register of Historic Places in Los Angeles. The Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park encompasses the Watts Towers site.
Design and construction
Rodia spent 33 years building the towers on a small piece of land he had purchased shortly after moving to Watts in 1917. Before moving to the L.A. suburb, he had lived in Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area, doing odd jobs. Divorced, estranged from his children, he came to Watts with little money or future. "I was one of the bad men in the United States," he recalled. "I was drunk all the time, always drinking."
He was forty-two, barely literate, unskilled beyond the basic tasks from a life of labor. To this day no one is sure why, but in 1921 he began to build "something big." "You have to be either good good or bad bad to be remembered," he often said. "You gotta do somethin' they never got 'em in the world." He began by digging a foundation, then made the rest up as he went along.
The sculptures' armatures are constructed from steel rebar and Rodia's own concoction of a type of concrete, wrapped with wire mesh. The main supports are embedded with pieces of porcelain, tile, and glass. They are decorated with found objects, including bottles, ceramic tiles, seashells, figurines, mirrors, and much more. Rodia called the Towers "Nuestro Pueblo" ("our town" in Spanish). He built them with no special equipment or predetermined design, working alone with hand tools. Neighborhood children brought pieces of broken pottery to Rodia, and he also used damaged pieces from Malibu Potteries and CALCO (California Clay Products Company). 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.
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. Rodia often walked the right-of-way all the way to Wilmington in search of material, a distance of nearly 20 miles (32 km).
In the summer of 1954, Rodia suffered a mild stroke. Shortly after the stroke, he fell off a tower. The fall was from a low height but at 75, he sensed the end. In 1955, Rodia quitclaimed his property to a neighbor and left, reportedly tired of battling with the City of Los Angeles for permits, and because he understood the possible consequences of his aging and being alone. He moved to Martinez, California, to be with his sister and never returned.
Artists and newspapers soon touted the amazing towers built by the little man who had disappeared. Then in 1961, Rodia was discovered living in Martinez. In his eighties, with broken teeth and a shock of white hair, he sat unnoticed at an art show in Berkeley where slides of his towers were shown. When the lights went up, Simon Rodia was introduced. He stood to his full 4'10". The audience stood, too, for wave after wave of applause. He bowed and tipped his hat. He died four years later.
Preservation after Rodia
Rodia's bungalow inside the enclosure burned down as a result of an accident on the Fourth of July 1956, and the City of Los Angeles condemned the structure and ordered it all to be destroyed. Actor Nicholas King and film editor William Cartwright visited the site in 1959, and purchased the property from Rodia's neighbor for $2,000 in order to preserve it. The City's decision to pursue expediting the demolition was still in force. The towers had already become famous and there was opposition from around the world. King, Cartwright, architects, artists, enthusiasts, academics, 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 and avoid their demolition.
The test took place on October 10, 1959. For the test, steel cable was attached to each tower and a crane was used to exert lateral force, all connected to a 'load-force' meter. The crane was unable to topple or even shift the towers with the forces applied, and the test was concluded when the crane experienced mechanical failure. Bud Goldstone and Edward Farrell were the engineer and architect leading the team. The stress test registered 10,000 lbs. The towers are anchored less than 2 feet (0.61 m) in the ground, and have been highlighted in architectural textbooks, and have changed the way some structures are designed for stability and endurance.
Conservation and damage
The Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers preserved the site independently until 1975 when, for the purpose of guardianship, they partnered with the City of Los Angeles and then with the State of California in 1978. The Towers are operated by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department and curated by the Watts Towers Arts Center/Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center, which grew out of the Youth Arts Classes established in the house structure more than 50 years ago.
In February 2011, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art received a grant from the James Irvine Foundation to scientifically assess and report on the condition of the Watts Towers, to continue to preserve the undisturbed structural integrity and composition of the aging works of art. Weather and moisture caused pieces of tile and glass to become loose on the towers, which are conserved for reattachment in the ongoing restoration work. The structures suffered little from the 1994 Northridge earthquake in the region, with only a few pieces shaken loose. An extensive three-year restoration project by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art began in 2017 and suspends public tours within the site (tours outside of the fenced towers and sculptures are still available).
California Historic Landmark marker
- NO. 993 WATTS TOWERS OF SIMON RODIA - The Watts Towers are perhaps the nation's best known work of folk art sculpture. Using simple hand tools, cast off materials (glass, shell, pottery pieces and broken tile) Italian immigrant Simon Rodia spent 30 years building a tribute to his adopted country and a monument to the spirit of individuals who make their dreams tangible. Rodia's Towers inspired many to rally and preserve his work and protect it for the future.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art mounted a photographic exhibition, Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts: A Photographic Exhibition, which was the first museum exhibition on the art or Simon Rodia and the towers.
Two artist interviews, "Watts Towers Q&A with Dominique Moody" and "Q&A With Artist Alison Saar About Her Connection to Watts Towers," were produced in 2012 by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art as part of its Exhibitions on View series.
In 2019, the towers were a gathering place along the 25.5-mile (41.0 km) funeral procession from the memorial for Nipsey Hussle at the Staples Center that wound through the streets of South L.A. At times, the crowd flooded the street creating gridlock.
In popular culture
Jazz musician Charles Mingus mentioned Rodia's Towers in his 1971 autobiography Beneath the Underdog, writing about his childhood fascination with Rodia and his work. There is also a reference to the work in Don DeLillo's novel Underworld.
In his book White Sands Geoff Dyer writes about his visit to the Watts Towers in the chapter "The Ballad of Jimmy Garrison".
- The 1957 short documentary film The Towers, by William Hale, includes voice recordings of Rodia and footage of the artist at work. The film incorrectly refers to the artist as "Simon Rodilla". The film was preserved by the Academy Film Archive in 2009.
- In the 1967 movie Good Times, Sonny & Cher danced around in one of the towers.
- In the 1972 movie Melinda the title character is taken to see the towers.
- The climax of the 1976 blaxploitation movie Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde takes place at the towers.
- The climax of the 1977 blaxploitation movie Abar, the First Black Superman takes place at the towers.
- The 1988 movie Colors ends with Sean Penn near the towers.
- The 1991 movie Ricochet, starring Denzel Washington, climaxes with Denzel's character swinging on the towers.
- The 1993 movie CB4 shows Chris Elliott recording a piece for his character's documentary in front of the towers.
- The 1993 movie Menace II Society shows the towers at the beginning of the 1993 introduction.
- The 2006 documentary I Build the Tower focuses on Rodia, and his creative vision and skill in building the Towers. The 1987 docudrama Daniel and The Towers is about them also. The Towers of Simon Rodia is a 2008 documentary filmed in digital 3-D.
- The 2016 movie La La Land shows the film's main characters visiting the towers in a montage sequence.
The Watts Towers were highlighted in the 1973 BBC television series The Ascent of Man, written and presented by Jacob Bronowski, in the episode "The Grain in the Stone — tools, and the development of architecture and sculpture".
- The towers were also depicted on The Simpsons episode "Angry Dad: The Movie".
- The towers are referenced in Dragnet season 3 episode 4.
- The towers appear and are discussed by student artists Claire Fisher and Russel Corwin in "Nobody Sleeps", the Season 3 Episode 4 of Six Feet Under.
- The towers appear and are discussed in 2017 Season 1, Episode 1 of the Amazon Originals production of "Long Strange Trip".
- The towers are in "B.M.O.C.", season 3, episode 9 of the series The White Shadow.
- The towers feature heavily in Episode 16 'Burn, baby, burn' of the sci-fi series Dark Skies. The episode is set during the Watts Riots of August 1965.
- In an August 2017 episode of BBC Radio 4's The Museum of Curiosity, California-born textile artist Kaffe Fassett chose the Watts Towers as his hypothetical donation to this imaginary museum.
- The 2004 game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas features the Jefferson Towers (also named as Sculpture Park) in the city of Los Santos, based on the Watts Towers.
- The 2005 street racing game LA Rush features the Watts Towers.
- The 2008 street racing game Midnight Club: Los Angeles features the Watts Towers.
- The 2013 game Grand Theft Auto V similarly features the Watts Towers, but in this version named as Rancho Towers.
- The 2014 game Wasteland 2 features the Watts Towers as part of the town of Rodia.
Watts Towers Arts Center
The Watts Towers Arts Center is an adjacent community arts center. The current facility opened in 1970. Prior to that, the Center operated under a canopy next to the Towers. The center was built and staffed by the non-profit Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts. Changing displays of contemporary artworks are on exhibit, and tours of the Watts Towers are conducted by the center. The Center's Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center holds art classes, primarily for youth and Special Needs adults from the local community and surrounding cities. Partnerships with CalArts and Sony Pictures provide media arts and piano classes. The Day of the Drum and Jazz Festival occurs annually on the last weekend of every September. It includes arts and craft booths and live music.
The only guided tours of the Watts Towers are given by the Watts Towers Arts Center staff and have included access to the interior of the site. Guides explain the history and context of the towers. As of June 2017 general admission is $7.00, seniors $3.00 and children under 12 years of age are free. Tours run Thursday through Saturday 10:30 am to 3:00 pm and Sundays 12:30 pm to 3:00 pm. There are no guided tours on Monday through Wednesday. NOTE: As of 2017, guided tours are no longer available within the site inside the gates for at least three years while substantial restoration is in progress. In the interim, guided tours are given from the exterior of the site only.
Sources on local landmarks
- List of Registered Historic Places in Los Angeles.
- List of Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monuments in South Los Angeles
- California Historical Landmarks in Los Angeles County, California
- National Register of Historic Places listings in Los Angeles, California
- United States
- Forestiere Underground Gardens in Fresno, built by Baldasare Forestiere, another Italian immigrant in California (born the same year as Rodia).
- Nitt Witt Ridge, an eclectic assemblage house in Cambria, California.
- Rubel Castle, a folk art sculptural house in Glendora, California.
- Bishop Castle, a massive stone castle hand built by Jim Bishop near Rye, Colorado.
- Mystery Castle, a house in Phoenix, Arizona, built in the 1930s in a similar style.
- Wharton Esherick Studio, built by American sculptor Wharton Esherick in Malvern, Pennsylvania.
- Coral Castle, a stone artwork and residence built in Homestead, Florida.
- Philadelphia's Magic Gardens, by mosaic artist Isaiah Zagar, an art space occupying three city lots created over the span of fourteen years.
- Heidelberg Project, a street in Detroit where houses have been turned into an outdoor art environment.
- Broken Angel House, in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, designed with similar ad hoc construction for more than 30 years.
- Kea Tawana, Japanese-American sculptor who built an ark from architectural salvage in Newark, New Jersey
- Salvation Mountain, in Imperial County, CA, built by Leonard Knight.
- Noah Purifoy, an African American visual artist and sculptor who co-founded the Watts Towers Art Center and created the Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Art Museum near the Mojave Desert town of Joshua Tree, California.
- Edward James, surrealist poet inspired by Rodia. James built "Las Pozas" in San Luis Potosí state, México.
- Hermit House, a unique residence in Israel, with intricate mosaics created by an artist over thirty years.
- Ferdinand Cheval, a French postman who constructed an "ideal palace" out of rocks in his spare time.
- Rock Garden, Chandigarh, a rock garden built completely out of thrown-away items. The project was secretly initiated by Nek Chand.
- Justo Gallego Martínez, a Spaniard who built his own cathedral.
- Valerio Ricetti, an Italian immigrant in Australia who built the Hermit's Cave.
- Antoni Gaudí, Catalan architect with a similar Expressionist style, particularly La Sagrada Família in Barcelona.
- "Watts Towers". Office of Historic Preservation, California State Parks. Retrieved July 27, 2013.
- Department of City Planning. "Designated Historic-Cultural Monuments". City of Los Angeles. Archived from the original on June 9, 2010. Retrieved June 15, 2010.
- "National Register Information System – Watts Towers of Simon Rodia (#77000297)". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. January 23, 2007.
- "Watts Towers". National Historic Landmark Quicklinks. National Park Service. Retrieved March 20, 2012.
- Whiteson, Leon. The Watts Towers of Los Angeles. London: Mosaic Press. ISBN 0-88962-394-5.
- Shatkin, Elina. "Watts Towers: The Story of an LA Icon". Discover Los Angeles. Retrieved November 1, 2020.
- Goldstone, Arloa Paquin (June 18, 1990). "The Towers of Simon Rodia". National Register of Historic Places Registration. National Park Service.
- "The Towers of Watts". The Attic. Retrieved July 2, 2018.
- "PCAD - Watts Towers, Watts, Los Angeles, CA". pcad.lib.washington.edu. Retrieved June 10, 2020.
- de Arend, Lucien. "The History of the Watts Towers". Watts Towers by Sam Rodia. Cultural Affairs Dept. Watts Center. Retrieved June 13, 2017.
- "PCAD - Watts Towers, Watts, Los Angeles, CA". pcad.lib.washington.edu. Retrieved June 10, 2020.
- Goldstone, Bud; Goldstone, Arloa Paquin (1997). The Los Angeles Watts Towers. Getty Conservation Institute. ISBN 978-0892364916.
- Boehm, Mike (February 11, 2011). "LACMA gets $500,000 grant to fund its new role as Watts Towers conservator". Los Angeles Times.
- Nguyen, Arthur (July 14, 2016). "Conservation Proceeds at Watts Towers". LACMA. Un Framed. Retrieved September 21, 2018.
- californiahistoricallandmarks.com 993, Watts Towers
- "Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts: A Photographic Exhibition by Seymour Rosen". Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Retrieved October 17, 2020.
- Wick, Julia (April 11, 2019). "An altar of love blooms for Nipsey Hussle in the shadow of the Watts Towers". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 12, 2019.
- Jennings, Angel. "Tens of thousands mourn Nipsey Hussle. But his memorial service was all about South L.A." Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 12, 2019.
- Duvall, John N. (May 29, 2008). The Cambridge Companion to Don DeLillo. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9781139828086. Retrieved August 12, 2018 – via Google Books.
- Fredman, Stephen (August 12, 2018). Contextual Practice: Assemblage and the Erotic in Postwar Poetry and Art. Stanford University Press. ISBN 9780804763585. Retrieved August 12, 2018 – via Google Books.
- "Preserved Projects". Academy Film Archive.
- The Towers of Simon Rodia (2008), with the documentary short Watts Towers – Then & Now — available on a DVD (2-D or 3-D) from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art bookshop.
- Ng, David (February 21, 2011). "The Simpsons' pays tribute to Watts Towers". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved May 1, 2015.
- "Episode 3 Series 11". The Museum of Curiosity. BBC Radio 4. Retrieved August 11, 2017.
- Wattstowers.us: The Watts Towers Arts Center, and Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center.
- "Watts Towers Schedule and Prices". Retrieved June 18, 2017.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Watts Towers.|
- Watts Towers Arts Center
- Simon Rodia State Historic Park website
- Watts Towers on Great Buildings
- The Towers — 1957 documentary
- Image of Watts Towers, surrounded by scaffolding, undergoes pressure testing as people watch in Los Angeles, California, 1959. Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive (Collection 1429). UCLA Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.