Standing Tall

Despite earthquakes, riots, and budget cuts, L.A.’s eccentric towers endure

The Watts Towers, a collection of 17 whimsical structures of different sizes configured in a mazelike array, rise above their eponymous neighborhood in Los Angeles. They are a testament to the artistic vision of their creator, an Italian immigrant named Simon Rodia. Between 1921 and 1954, in his spare time between construction jobs, Rodia fashioned the monuments out of steel pipes and rods (and the occasional bed frame). He wrapped the towers with mesh, coated them with mortar, and embedded them with bits of ceramic tile, colored glass, scrap metal, bottle caps, and seashells. Now a National Historic Landmark and a state park, the Towers stand as a symbol of resilience in Watts, having survived the neighborhood's 1965 riots and several major earthquakes.

Last summer, however, the landmark stood in precarious shape. Beset by structural and cosmetic degradation, Rodia's work was in desperate need of repair. Wind, rain, and heat were causing his sculptures to crack, rust, and lose pieces faster than anyone could repair them. The professional curator of the Towers for more than 20 years had announced her early retirement, and the lone maintenance staff member for the site had taken another job—precisely when the city, which maintains Watts Towers, was disinclined to fill vacant positions because of an ongoing budget crisis. For a beloved monument in a tough neighborhood, the future looked bleak.

The Towers "are a meaningful symbol in an underserved and distressed community," says Olga Garay, executive director for the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. She began brokering an arrangement to ensure that the Towers could survive. "My number-one goal had always been their preservation," she says, "whether in-house by city employees or by collaborating with arts organizations."

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) responded to Garay's call for assistance. "When it became clear the city was facing significant budget difficulties and that the Towers' conservation and care might be affected, we asked what we could do to help," says Melody Kanschat, the museum's president. "The fact that the Towers exist in Watts, and have for so long, and are so loved and revered and have withstood so many changes in the community is a testament to perseverance—to how much art can mean to people."

The solution turned out to be simple. With both the curator and maintenance staff positions vacant indefinitely, the city would dedicate a portion of those salaries to the Towers' conservation and maintenance. And to compensate for the loss of personnel, LACMA's conservators would provide pro bono preservation consultation and scientific expertise. Going forward, the California African American Museum and the J. Paul Getty Museum will offer additional curatorial and professional support, ensuring that the landmark gets the restoration work it so sorely needs.

One of the first priorities will be to update a 20-year-old preservation blueprint for the Towers, to make sure the document reflects the latest conservation techniques. LACMA has also begun fundraising, to help defray the cost of restoration. Another objective: to raise the Towers' profile and visitation without creating traffic congestion in the neighborhood.

Ironically, the monument has probably survived because of its location. Said a recent Los Angeles Times editorial: "If [the Towers] 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."

If Garay succeeds, the Towers will never suffer such a fate. "I don't think people are prepared for how majestic they are, how they've become such a symbol for that part of the city," she says. "And I don't care how we do it, as long as we keep an eye on the prize, which is to preserve them, maintain them, and make them accessible to a broader public."

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