Simon Rodia's Watts Towers

Simon Rodia's Watts Towers

Field review by the editors.

Los Angeles, California

Older generations hear the name "Watts" and can't help adding the word "Riots." But the Watts Riots exploded in 1965 -- long ago -- and although they left a deep scar on America's psyche, most people now prefer to complete "Watts" with "Towers" -- its enduring and internationally known outsider artwork. This amazing environment built by one person stands a century after construction began, a trio of scrap material spires almost 100 feet tall, among a total of 17 structures.

Simon Rodia's Watts Towers

When Watts was still a small town, Italian immigrant Sabato Simon "Sam" Rodia bought a wedge of property near the railroad tracks. He was 42, divorced, out of money, and drinking too much. He decided to do something "good" -- say, building 10-story high towers next to his house.

He started in 1921, at the age of 42, and worked on the towers for the next 33 years.

Shell decorations on the Watts Towers.
Shell decorations on the Watts Towers.

Rodia was a telephone repairman and tile setter by trade, but untrained in art or architecture. He did all of the work himself, with tools not much more extensive than a hammer, chisel, shovel and a bucket. His materials included seashells (abalones, clams, mussels, snails), wire, tile shards, old bottles and broken ceramics. Neighborhood children helped gather materials. He found scrap metal along miles of railroad tracks.

Simon Rodia's Watts Towers

We recommend taking the guided tour with one of the art center's docents. Our knowledgeable tour guide kept referring to Simon as "Sam" Rodia, because that was the name he went by during the tower's construction. "Simon was the Hispanic community's name for him later," our guide noted.

The towers rose slowly, a spidery confection of steel frameworks wrapped in wire mesh and covered in Rodia's custom concrete mortar. The surfaces were inlaid with artistic patterns of found objects. The Towers resembled a skeletal cathedral, or a madman's oil derrick (there were plenty standing in LA neighborhoods in the 1920s). Rodia said he built it to celebrate his adopted country.

According to our guide, Sam was 4 ft. 10 in. tall, had a high, craggy voice -- and later in life had a mouthful of broken teeth.

Simon Rodia's Watts Towers

He worked on the site every day, clambering up the tower sides with his tools and building materials. Rodia told visitors how he would be awake on many nights, struggling with new ideas or construction problems to be solved. He didn't have a long term plan, and nothing was laid out on paper. Over the decades, Sam would sometimes start a new section, then decide it was wrong or didn't fit, and would dismantle it. Rodia signed his finished work with a tool imprint and his initials.

Watts Towers made from cake frosting.
Watts Towers made from cake frosting.

Several times in its history, the work was criticized as architecturally unsound. Engineers inspected, conducted tests and found it was actually very sturdy. Rodia built the Towers to include 150 flying buttresses, providing stability.

By 1954, Rodia was pretty much done with his masterpiece. When he fell from a low height off of one of the Towers he knew he was getting too old for spire building. He sold it to a neighbor for practically nothing (who subsequently sold it to a guy who hoped to turn it into a taco stand), and moved to Martinez near San Francisco to be closer to his sister's family. Rodia never returned, and died in 1965. His Watts house burned down accidentally in 1956.

The Towers were threatened with demolition, but as a central fixture in Watts, townspeople had developed a sense of pride in them. It was a stark, always visible reminder of what one person could accomplish. A citizens group called "The Committee for Simon Rodia's Tower in Watts" raised money and negotiated the landmark's survival.

Plates.

The Towers have inspired generations of artists -- spunky backyard sculptors and art environment toilers. The site never really fell into obscurity (like so many other roadside constructions), being in a major media-hungry city with an active art community. Rodia achieved a bit of pop culture immortality -- he's one of he photo figures in the crowd on the cover of The Beatles album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

The Watts Tower Arts Center has been in operation since the late 1960s, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation of Rodia's sculptural works at the site, and to creating avenues of artistic expression for its surrounding multicultural community. The Center runs a 10-minute long film by Billy Hale about Simon Rodia and the impact of his work on the community and the world.

Informally on display in the center (we spotted it in the office entrance to the gallery), is a miniature replica of the Watts Towers, made from cake frosting by a local bakery, then lacquered for preservation.

Visitors should check in advance on access to the Towers. Repair and restoration work can often span years, with one or more towers interminably wrapped in scaffolding. Since 2017, a 3-year restoration project has limited tour access to outside the surrounding fence.

Tours free outside fence, otherwise Adults $7 Seniors $3, Kids under 12 free.

Simon Rodia's Watts Towers

Simon Rodia State Historic Park

Address:
1765 East 107th St., Los Angeles, CA
Directions:
South of downtown Los Angeles, in Watts, between Graham Ave. and S. Wilmington Ave. along Santa Ana Blvd.
Hours:
W-Sa 10-4, Su 12-4. Center closed M-Tu. Call for tour info. (Call to verify)
Phone:
213-847-4646
Admission:
Adults $7, 13-17 and seniors $3
RA Rates:
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