The Watts Towers are in Trouble… but may be saved by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

I’ve really only been to Los Angeles to spend time once, but during that time one of the most important things for me was to visit the Watts Towers, the folk art monument and masterpiece in one of the city’s worst neighborhoods. The Watts Towers have been on my interest list since I first read about them in the early 1960s while a student at Northwestern (I got interested in them after seeing a black and white photograph on the cover of a paperback volume of poetry), and I have been monitoring their condition and appearance ever since.

Yesterday’s LA Times pointed out a falloff, due to the economy, in support from the County of Los Angeles in the maintenance of the Towers, Here is a section :

L.A.’s municipal budget crisis has hastened the need to find help just to continue the partial measures that have been the rule. Because of layoffs, a hiring freeze and an early retirement plan aimed at trimming city employment rolls, the Department of Cultural Affairs expects to see its staffing reduced from 70 positions to 37 by July 1. Among the employees being lost to early retirement, Garay said, are Virginia Kazor, longtime curator of the Watts Towers and another historic landmark, Hollyhock House, which architect Frank Lloyd Wright planted on a Hollywood hilltop in 1921.

The towers, topping out at just under 100 feet high, were created single-handedly by Simon Rodia, an uneducated Italian immigrant stonemason who built them in his spare time from 1921 to 1954. He created the framework of steel, wire and concrete and ornamented the three main spires and their 14 surrounding sculptural elements with colorful bits of broken glass, pottery and seashells.

Especially after they were left untouched during the 1965 Watts riots, the towers gained symbolic heft as an emblem of resilience, individual initiative, underdog achievement and potential rebirth.

It is well- known, actually a part of the Towers’ historic mythology, that Rodia, after spending over 30 years creating the architectural model, deeded the property to a neighbor in 1955 and moved away. He died in 1965 in Martinez, California age 86. In 1959 William Cartwright and Nicholas King purchased the lot for $3000. It was later given to the City. That the Towers have survived this long is in itself somewhat of a miracle.

LACMA officials said they would lend their expertise to help conserve the towers. They also promised to help raise private donations to keep them in good repair. That’s critical, because heat and moisture continually create cracks in the towers and the fanciful structures surrounding them, and the eye-popping ornamentation — seashells and pottery shards and discarded tiles and glass bottles — often falls off. The cost of deferred conservation work has been estimated at $5 million, yet the city will struggle to scrape up $200,000 for the landmark next year, and the Cultural Affairs staff is being cut nearly in half. Among the departures is the towers’ curator.

If the Watts Towers were located in, say, Westwood, they might be a more internationally renowned symbol of the city than the Hollywood sign. Then again, if they weren’t tucked at the end of a cul de sac in a poor and gang-wracked neighborhood, there’s a good chance that by now they would have been torn down and replaced by a mini-mall or a housing tract. Notorious for bulldozing its historic structures, Los Angeles is also remarkably stingy when it comes to support for the arts.

Rodia’s gift to the city is far too precious to be lost to history.

One of the things that the LA Times pointed out to me was how few visitors, relative to the quantity of tourists visiting LA and to the actual visits by residents themselves, the Watts Towers actually get. Seeing them in person is something I will never forget. The were splendid, remarkable creations … creative expressions of an Italian craftsman who spent a major part of his life making them. If you get the chance to see them in person, don’t pass it up.

About btchakir

Retired Theatre Producer, Graphic Designer, Usability Tester and General Troubleshooter with a keen interest in Politics and The Stage. Currently heard on WSHC, 89.7 FM (on line at and occasionally dabbling in Community Theatre.

Posted on April 13, 2010, in Art, Arts, history, News, Press, Theatre and Art, Word from Bill and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Camilla Thomas

    HI, I just read your story on Simon Rodia.I have family history on that name .I was told that my Grandparents took “Simon Simon” in as a boarder and such and that my grandfather took him to the dump to get the articles he needed to make the towers. My Grandparents lived in Long Beach.They had walk ways that look like the Watts towers with the bottless in them.

    • Wow. Neat story. I had an Italian Grandfather whose sister had a husband that did interesting work with concrete and broken glass… not mighty towers, but things like outdoor fireplaces and short walls. I wonder how much of the history of the folk art form was Italian?

    • Dear Camilla,
      Read your 4/13/10 comment. Great! I do historical data on Rodia & his Towers. Know what years grandparent and Sam were together? Any reports written? Thanks!

    • Comment to Camilla, I spent some time with Simon (Sam) Rodia in 1961/2 and we discussed his Towers. He did it all himself. No help. No kids bringing him stuff. He was a ‘Master Cement Finisher’ by trade. Had a job all the times during the great depression. Hard worker. Lived from 1921 to 1955 at 1765 107th Street. More? Ask! Our book is “The Los Angeles Watts Towers” most libraries.
      Bud Goldstone

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