They are at once menacing and childlike. Barbed, and threatening, colorful and imaginative it is a place as intimidating as a fortress––yet entertaining as a playground. It’s not hard to believe that these are perhaps the ancient remains of the great civilization of Atlantis itself. Steel skeletal cathedrals bedecked in multi-hued bits of pottery, ceramic tile, abalone shells and glass. Or maybe a once-mighty fantastical sailing ship, traveling from adventure to adventure. Always outracing the sea serpents, always discovering the treasure, now landlocked, and pillaged.
Visiting the Watts Towers can be an intimidating proposition. The parking lot has at least one armed guard on duty at all times, and the neighborhood is scarred by years of urban blight. Watts, California was the scene of the eponoymously named Watts Riots in 1965. A large scale “civil disorder” between the Los Angeles police, and the mostly African American populace of the neighborhood. It lasted 6 days, claimed 34 lives, and absorbed an estimated $100 million dollars in damage. The city itself is still economically depressed, and has earned a reputation for gangs and violent crimes.
There was a time however, when the city of Watts was just another rural town in Southern California, and it was during this time that Italian-born Sabato “Simon” Rodia decided to “do something big.” Simon Rodia was a small man, who stood just under 5 feet in height. In 1921, Rodia , a logger/coal miner/construction worker, purchased a home on a triangular plot of land near the rail road tracks and began his life’s work, “Nuestro Pueblo” (translated, “Our Town”)
Simon Rodia built the 3 separate spires as well as a patio, a gazebo with a circular bench, 3 birdbaths, and a number of other functional artistic creations on his property despite never having a proper education. More impressive is the fact that Rodia built it all without the benefit of machine equipment, bolts, rivets, scaffolds, ladders, or even a blueprint.
This tiny but powerful man would gather his supplies wherever he could find them. Neighborhood children were paid pennies for fetching bottles, metal, wire, plates and various other materials that were often discarded from the passing train, but Rodia constructed the entire edifice single-handedly. No fitted pipe was taller than 10 foot long, and they were bent and forged by Rodia against the tracks of the railroad itself. The primary pipes were buried in the ground, secured by cement, the subsequent smaller pipes were held together using cement, wire, and by jamming nails into the grooves. Rodia would climb the structures using only a window washer’s belt and buckle, and a bucket, which would carry wet cement, or mosaic tile, or whatever was needed at the time.
The tallest of the steeples is ninety-nine and a half feet above the ground, and contains the longest slender reinforced concrete column in the world. Rodia’s work is physically connected to itself as if it were one giant cement and steel spider web.
Legend has it that Rodia sold the property to his friend for only a dollar in 1955 (when he was 75) so he could move closer to his family. The home caught on fire the following year, but his masterpiece still stood.
The property was ordered demolished, but “The Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watt’s” proved the towers were structurally sound by devising an engineering test that was more stringent than it needed to be, and the Dept of Building and Safety decided against razing them.
Today the Watts Towers are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The irony is, the city will most likely always be remembered more for destruction than for creation.