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Monday, October 17, 2011

Watts Up

Sabato "Simon" Rodia.  Image courtesy of Lucien den Arend (see link below).

He wanted to build something really big.  So Sabato "Simon" Rodia did.  The former construction worker used scraps and a few tools to build the structures that are known as the Watts Towers, one of the most famous landmarks in Los Angeles.

His background is sketchy, but he was born in Serino, Italy in 1875.  He came to the U.S. with his brother when he was 15.  His brother was killed in a mining accident, and Rodia moved to Seattle, then Oakland, Long Beach, and finally Watts in 1920, where he purchased an odd-shaped property.  He began his work on the towers in 1921, and finished in 1954.  The Watts Towers are a collection of 17 inter-connected structures and were built in his spare time; he worked construction jobs during the day.

All three images above courtesy of Lucien den Arend.

Rodia called it "Nuestro Pueblo" (Our Town), and built it without scaffolding, bolts, rivets, welds, or by a planned and written design.  His tools were a pipefitter's pliers and a window-washer's belt and buckle.  The structures are made of steel pipes and rods, wrapped with wire mesh and coated with mortar.  The main supports have pieces of glass, tile, and porcelain embedded in them, as well as found objects such as bottles and shells.  Some of the identifiable soda bottles still bear the logos.  The property is near some railroad tracks, which he used as a vise.

This is known as the "ship's wheel", and you can see the soda bottle labels.
Image courtesy of Victoriansecrets (see link below).

He worked without drawings, and designed the structures as he built them.  Some liken them to an ark, saying the tall towers form masts.  Certainly there are ship elements throughout.  Within there is also a gazebo with bird baths and a circular bench.

This resembles a prow.  Image courtesy of Victoriansecrets.
The "gazebo".  Image courtesy of Victoriansecrets.

Unfortunately, these were paranoid times, and Rodio did not get along well with his neighbors, so his place was frequently vandalized.  Rumors spread that he was building antennae for transmitting secrets to the commies or the Japanese (you pick 'em), and he finally gave up and moved.

Image courtesy of Lucien den Arend.

He gave the property to a neighbor.  It was then bought by a man who hoped to put a Mexican fast food restaurant on the lot.  It changed hands again, and the bungalow was torched, most likely by vandals.  The City of L.A. condemned it and ordered it razed.  An actor and an editor visited the site in 1959, saw how neglected it was, and purchased it for $3,000 with the goal of preserving it.  When the City found out, they planned to raze it before the property was transferred, but the Towers were already world-renowned and there was international opposition to their destruction.

Image courtesy of Lucien den Arend.

The Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts was formed, consisting of the two owners, the curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and local architects and community activists.  The Committee negotiated to have the Towers tested for safety.  The crane used to attempt to topple or shift the Towers was unable to make them budge.

Image courtesy of Lucien den Arend.

The Towers were deeded to the City in 1975, and then deeded to the State in 1978.  It was designated as the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park, and is operated by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department in a partnership with LACMA.

Image courtesy of Lucien den Arend.

The Towers suffered structural damage in 1994 from the Northridge earthquake. After repairs were made, it was reopened in 2001.  It was further damaged in a windstorm, and was reopened this year.  A lot of vandalism still occurs.  Earlier this year LACMA announced that a $500,000 grant was received from the James Irvine Foundation for preservation and to promote the site.

Image courtesy of Lucien den Arend.

The Watts Towers have been hailed as a prime example of American Naïve art. There are annual festivals held there which include the Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival, and the Day of the Drum Festival.  For more information on events and visiting the site, check here.

He may have been deterred by fear and hate and chased away, but he will be immortalized always by the Beatles - and how many can claim that?  He is on the cover of the Sgt. Pepper's album, top row and second from the right (behind Bob Dylan), peering over the heads of Karl Marx and H.G. Wells.  Not bad for someone just following his artistic impulses.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.
Website maintained by Lucien den Arend is here.
Website for Victoriansecrets is here.

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