Posted on May 07 2019
Some people make sketches of fanciful designs—curving, wandering lines of composition, artful constructs that would be impractical to translate into the three dimensions of real-world materials. And some people have those Dr. Seuss visions and go ahead and make them real despite the difficulty. Sabato “Simon” Rodia, also known as Sam, was an Italian immigrant to Los Angeles in the early part of the 20th century, who wanted to create something big. He came from Italy by way of Pennsylvania, Washington, and Texas, places where he had developed a range of manual construction skills while working in rock quarries, and railroad and logging camps. He made enough money to buy a small, triangle-shaped lot on 107th St. in Los Angeles, and at age 42 went to work on the big idea he called Nuestro Pueblo, but which the world would come to know as the Watts Towers.
His creations are called towers because they are tall spires of metal framework, the tallest of which is just short of 100 feet, or about 10 storys. Others that reach 85 and 55 feet are close by, and shorter ones, as well as structures of different shapes, complete the display of 17 whimsical sculptures. Rodia made the towers by wiring the steel together and then wrapping the legs, and the hoops that encircle them at intervals, with wire mesh. He then applied cement over the mesh, and emplaced a variety of found objects into the wet cement. Shells, stones, bits of broken glass and pottery, and tiles cover the surfaces of the framework. Into broader expanses of wet cement within the project, he pressed patterns and made hand-drawn designs. He did all this work with no heavy equipment, or power tools, or help from anyone else. In his spare time, from 1921 to 1954, he built his miraculous towers using no plans but the vision in his head.
The towers do not look particularly robust. The steel’s girth is not substantial, and the open framework design appears a bit spindly. The coating of cement over the metal is not thick, and the foundations do not go very deep. Rodia used neither rivets nor bolts, and nothing is welded together. Despite his DIY methods, the main tower, called West Tower, is said to be the world’s tallest slender reinforced concrete column. Rodia climbed all over the towers, never using scaffolding and relying little on ladders. He did use a window-washer’s belt and harness, but his experience as a lineman, and other high-elevation work, apparently had rid him of any fear of heights. Lacking equipment such as a crane to raise parts, Rodia carried pieces aloft by his own strength and fixed any cracked or crumbling cement at any elevation by hand from a mortar-filled bucket. Although those structures which he had produced by 1933 survived that year’s powerful Long Beach earthquake, his questionable construction techniques and lack of permits drew concern from building officials. In 1959, his creation was declared a potential hazard, and stress tests were ordered. The structures exceeded the strength demanded by engineers—10,000 pounds of lateral force—and the threat of demolition was removed.
This was a huge relief to both the sculptor and his neighbors. Located as it was by the railroad tracks in a low-income neighborhood, the towers were a joy to the locals who watched Rodia slowly assemble his masterwork. To have so unique a spectacle in such a non-descript sea of single-family houses was something to be proud of. Though irrascible, Rodia was well known and respected for his hard work and artistic independence. Asked why he put so much of his life into the project, he would give a variety of simple answers in his heavily Italian-accented English. Whether, as he said at various times, it was because he had lost his job, or was avoiding drinking, or wanted to do it for all the nice Americans, his main motivation seemed to be an urge to make something big and unusual. The towers pretty much consumed his life, and his obsession with them cost him his marriage. Rodia, at age 75, stopped working on the towers and in 1955 deeded them to a neighbor. He went north to Martinez, California to be closer to family, and never returned, reaching the end of his life on June 17, 1965.
Shortly after his death, the other and less fortunate thing for which Watts is known came to pass. Since the 1940s, the little city had become predominantly African American, a result of that population being economically pushed out of other areas. Thanks to the pressures of poverty and racial oppression, tempers flared in the summer of 1965, and the Watts Riots, sometimes called the Watts Rebellion, tore the area apart for five days. The towers were a beloved and respected part of the community, though, and survived the ordeal unharmed. The towers have been shepherded over by groups and individuals since they were spared from demolition in 1959, and they eventually came to be part of the California State Parks System. Additionally, the site is now on the National Register of Historic Places, and listed as a National Historic Landmark, well protected for future generations.
Interestingly, the enchanting towers inspired more than just lovers of folk art. Rodia covered much of his construction with seashells, around 10,000 of them. Like almost all of his materials, they were found objects, free for the taking. Admired for their natural form and what they lent to the overall design, they were also noticed by marine biologists who saw a value in their preservation as a collection. A scientist named Bruno Pernet, fascinated by the display, has been cataloging the species of the shells and attempting to determine their original homes. It’s not just an idle undertaking, because some of the shells, like the California black abalone and California Venus clam, no longer exist along the the local shoreline. Rodia’s work defines a period of coastal history in the 34 species of bivalves and snails that found a permanent home in the Watts Towers cement. Leaving a shell out in the elements once its animal owner has died will eventually lead to decomposition, and some of the shells are indeed gone, leaving only their print upon the cement for identification. Pernet’s job is further complicated by the fact that he can’t see one side or the other of the mounted shells. He calls upon other experts to help him with puzzling species, but he has identified and mapped the locations of the shells using field techniques that he had to modify in order to catalog the collection in three dimensions, as opposed to the two-dimensional study one might do on a shoreline. Information from old letters indicates that Rodia walked the beaches from San Pedro to Long Beach in search of shells, and the preponderance of California native species bears this out. Without knowing it, Rodia created a snapshot of Southern California tidal biology between the 1920s and 1950s for scientific posterity.
The Watts Towers, then, enrich the worlds of art, biology, and geography, born from the mind of a driven amateur artist who gave his singular vision full rein. As Simon Rodia himself said, “You got to do something they never got ‘em in the world.”
The million streets of Los Angeles are complicated to navigate. Carry this handy street map by National Geograhic to guide you till you can see the towers sticking up. Then it’s easy. Available from Maps.com.
caption: They do indeed tower over the neighborhood.
source: Wikimedia Commons: Levi Clancy (CC by SA 4.0 International)
caption: Stretching skyward, the towers are layer upon layer of colorful detail.
source: Flickr: Megan Westerby (CC by 2.0)
caption: The towers impress by their size, but there is much more to Rodia’s whole statement.
source: Wikimedia Commons: InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, USA (CC by SA 2.0 Generic)
caption: Every surface is encrusted with bits of tile, shell, or glass. Ceramic shards, like the seashells, document history. Many pieces represent LA’s prominent ceramics factories of the day.
source: Library of Congress: Carol M. Highsmith (Public domain)
caption: Simon Rodia made impressions of his tools and left his initials as part of his work.
source: Flickr: Mr. Littlehand (CC by SA 2.0)