When we were kids we’d break into groups and read aloud from an English book that tantalized us with stories of far off places like the ancient ruins of Pompeii and the pastoral landscapes of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. We dreamed of visiting every hot spot when we were all grown-up and living a heavy rotation of madcap adventures. But of all the mysterious attractions we learned about in that fourth grade classroom, none seemed more glamorous than the manmade towers erected in Watts, California.
Of course, when we moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘90s, we learned that the seemingly alluring destination was a part of town where the average Angeleno dared not go. As children in the ‘70s, the fact that this was the home of the infamous Watts Riots had eluded us. But in our Los Angeles, where Rodney King pleaded that we all “get along,” it seemed safest not to go where local newscasts told us we weren’t welcome. So despite the fact that we often yearned to see the sculpture spires of our childhood fascination, we never quite managed to venture to that part of town.
When we decided that it was time to start to tick off items on our Pop Culture Bucket List, we knew there was no better place to begin than the Towers of Simon Rodia. So last week, exactly 50 years after the Watts riots ripped through the Los Angeles neighborhood, we completed the journey we’d imagined for all those years.
Turning the corner onto E. 107th Street and seeing the Watts Towers traverse the skyline was like seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time. After 25 years in Southern California, we had finally arrived.
Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Monument #15 sits on a one-tenth acre triangular lot in the middle of an unassuming block. The art installation that Italian immigrant Sabato “Simon” Rodia painstakingly created over a 33-year period, should seem completely out of place with it’s mosaic walls and embellished steeples. But as the years passed, several neighbors mirrored the ceramic patchwork to create their own homages to the historic jewel that adorns their street.
Between 1921 and 1954, the coal miner turned construction worker turned folk artist used steel, mortar and found objects like shells, glass bottles and pottery to transform the land alongside his simple shack. He toiled away in his spare time and had absolutely no help building what he dubbed “Nuestro Pueblo” (meaning “our town” in Italian).
He didn’t use scaffolding or bolts or welding. His determination was so intense that he used the train tracks behind his house to bend by hand the rebar that constituted the rings of his sky-high structures. Rodia would then clamber up each structure, on his own, to add the next ring to the soaring towers.
The fearless artist wasn’t the only one to scale the spires. While we were making our pilgrimage, we spoke to a grey-haired man who was with his two grandsons. He bragged to them about the fact that when he was a boy their age, he and his friends would come onto the then abandoned lot and climb the tallest 99-1/2-foot tower for fun.
Of course that was long after Rodia had left the 17 structures he had worked on for over three decades. In 1954, he injured his hip in a fall from the Towers and deeded his property to a neighbor. Thinking he only had a year to live, the 75-year-old moved to Martinez, California, to stay with his sister. He lived there until his death in 1965 at the age of 90 and spent his final days building smaller versions of the Watts Towers on her property.
Without its guardian to protect them, the Watts Towers were quickly thrown into jeopardy. A year after he left, Rodia’s house tragically burned to the ground when it was ignited by an errant firecracker. Luckily the other structures survived.
Still the drama didn’t end there. In 1957, claiming the Towers were unsafe, the City of Los Angeles issued an order for their removal. But fortunately the structures were as steadfast as the man who had made them, defying a stress test that proved they could withstand the force of an 80 mile-per-hour wind.
Soon the largest piece of folk-art created by one individual would get the respect it deserved. In 1963 The Watts Towers were designated a Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Monument and in 1990 they were dubbed a National Historic Landmark. After the Northridge Earthquake in 1994, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) granted almost two million dollars in funds to restore the damage that the architectural treasure had suffered.
Today visitors from around the world flock to the artisanal masterpiece taking guided tours every weekend. Still the Watts Tour Art Center’s Director, Rosie Lee Hooks, is the first to admit that they get more foreign tourists than locals who are still a bit apprehensive of taking a day trip to Watts.
But we would now contend that you can’t officially call L.A. your home unless you take a trip to Simon Rodia’s place. In September you can take in the grandeur of the Watts Towers and check out some unique music. The 34th Annual Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festival is September 26 and the 39th Annual Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival is September 27. To find out more visit the official website.
Simon Rodia once said, “I wanted to do something big and I did it.” Honor his memory. Support outsider art. Add The Watts Towers to your Pop Culture Bucket List.