Created by Simon Rodia Born 1879, Rivottoli, Italy
Died 1965, Martinez, California
Spiraling steel spires embellished with colored glass, beach shells, broken tile, mirror shards, and pottery fragments, all circa 1920-1950. The Watts Towers were built by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia on his triangular lot in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts over the course of 33 years.
Rodia began work on The Watts Towers around 1921. Work continued until 1954 when the structures were declared by their creator to be finished. Over the next 20 years the structure suffered from neglect, weather and earthquakes until they were gifted to the City of Los Angeles. The site is now a unit of California State Parks and managed by the Los Angeles City Cultural Affairs Department. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985.
“I had in mind to do
something big and I did it.”
In 1954, at the age of 75, Italian immigrant Simon Rodia packed up his things and declared he was going away to die. He had spent the last 33 years building what is today a popular tourist attraction and a California landmark, The Watts Towers. The Towers and the small triangular lot they stood on would pass to a neighbor, who would later sell the land for $1,000. Rodia had single-handedly built these structures from steel and mortar. He had decorated them with broken glass, pottery shards and beach shells he collected himself. For the next three decades, the Towers would live a precarious existence, threatened by demolition and natural disaster before finally gaining protection by the state in 1985.
Born in Southern Italy in 1879, Simon Rodia had come to the United States with an older brother in the mid-1890s. He supported himself by working in coalfields, rock quarries and railroad camps. With the death of his brother, Rodia moved west and married in Seattle in 1902. The couple would divorce ten years later and Rodia would marry twice more before eventually giving up and turning his energies to more artistic—and independent—endeavors.
Between 1921 and 1925, Rodia moved into a small cottage on a triangular lot in Watts, California. It was here, along the Pacific Electric Railway Red Car tracks, that he would set about “doing something big.” Rodia began constructing what would grow to be a series of spiraling structures, all contained within his tiny tenth of an acre. In addition to the signature towers, he made fountains, plazas, walkways and a gazebo. Rodia worked without the aid of scaffolding, building up one level at a time, and eventually reaching heights of nearly 100 feet. His construction methods were novel. Beams were tied together with chicken wire and wire mesh. Joints he cleverly configured without welding, bolting or riveting. The Towers were Rodia’s project. When asked why he worked alone, Rodia replied that he himself barely knew what he planned to do next. How could he, then, direct anyone else?
Tall Towers, Suspicious Minds
Around 1954, Rodia had had enough of Watts. Lack of respect and misunderstanding led to vandalism of his Towers. His construction was, in the politically and racially charged 1930s and ‘40s, viewed with suspicion. During World War II, rumors spread that Rodia’s towers transmitted secrets to the Japanese. Later on, it was feared they were relaying secrets to the Communists. What had begun as an inspired vision became, for Rodia, a burden. He deeded his property to his neighbor, Louis H. Saucedo, and disappeared.
For the next three decades, the future of The Watts Towers was in flux. The land was bought for $1,000 by Joseph Montoya, who hoped to put up a Mexican fast food restaurant on Rodia’s former lot. Around 1955, Rodia’s cottage burned to the ground. In 1959, an actor and a film editor, alarmed at the Towers’ decrepit state, bought Rodia’s vision for $20 down and a total payment of $3,000. They had planned to save The Watts Towers, but soon learned that plans for their destruction were underway. In 1957, The Towers had been declared “an unauthorized public hazard” by the city of Los Angeles, built, as they were, without a “rational plan.”
Controversy ensued and the city conceded to a lateral stress test. If The Watts Towers—built by one man using novel construction methods—could withstand 10,000 pounds of stress, The Towers would be spared. On October 10, 1959, 1,000 supporters held their breath as they watched Rodia’s structure weather—without signs of strain—the equivalent of seventy-six mile-an-hour sustained winds. It was, in fact, the testing apparatus that began to bend. The demolition order was revoked and a year later The Towers were opened to the public for a fifty-cent entry fee.
Accolades and Honors
Despite the media attention, Rodia remained distant. He was no longer interested in The Towers. They were, for him, in the past. Nonetheless, he was coaxed out of hiding in 1961, when his work was publicly honored on two occasions, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and at the University of California, Berkeley. After answering questions and demonstrating his construction techniques, Rodia received a standing ovation from the crowd. He would die quietly four years later in Martinez, California.
Today, Rodia’s vision stands as one of nine folk art environments listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The land was deeded to the state of California in 1978. The structures underwent extensive repair until 1985, when The Watts Towers were named a U.S. National Historic Landmark. The Watts Towers is now part of California State Parks, overseen by the Los Angeles City Cultural Affairs Department.
The property was deeded to the state of California in 1978. The site is now a unit of California State Parks and is managed by the Los Angeles City Cultural Affairs Department. The Watts Towers are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are also a U.S. National Historic Landmark.
The Watts Towers are located at 1727 East 107th Street, Los Angeles, California. From downtown Los Angeles take the 110 Freeway south to Century Boulevard. On Century Boulevard, turn right on Compton Avenue then go one block to 103rd Street. Take 103rd to Graham and turn right. Take Graham to 107th Street. Turn left.
“The Towers will always require a certain amount of maintenance just because of the nature of how they were constructed. But for anything to be added to the Towers would be to compromise the artistic integrity of them…. People come in and say, ‘Well, why don't you replace those seashells, or why don't you put new glass up there?’ Well, Simon didn't do it, so we can't do it. It would be tantamount to trying to put the nose back on the sphinx.”
—Mark Greenfield, director of the Watts Towers Arts Center
Off the Map- A look into backyard paradises created by visionary artists around the world