All Along the Watts Towers
L.A.'s mended outsider spectacle still turns heads.
By Kerri Westenberg | Online Only | August 29, 2001
Watts, Calif.—Long before the race riots, Sabato "Simon" Rodia led a one-man insurrection in this south-central Los Angeles community. The Italian laborer's glittering back-yard spires, reaching as high as 100 feet into the sky, turned the notion of art on its ear and left city inspectors scratching their heads. Amassed from 1921 to 1954, Watts Towers drew thousands of visitors to this forlorn neighborhood. Then age and a 1994 earthquake made hazards of the amalgamations of steel rods and rings coated with mortar and embedded with ceramic plates and cups, shells, 7up bottles, and other discarded scrap that caught Rodia's eye. Closed for seven years and carefully mended, the Watts Towers will reopen to the public amid hoopla on Sept. 28.
Rodia (c. 1879-1965) might have been amazed by the imminent fuss. A laborer at a tile factory by day, he built his colossal work during evenings and weekends next to his house on the last lot on a dead-end street. By all accounts, he worked alone and with no greater purpose than to make his vision real.
Maybe he started by jazzing up his chimney (the house burned down long ago, but the chimney still stands). Day by day, year by year, his work multiplied to 15 tightly spaced sculptures, among them a ship, a barbecue, a gazebo with built-in birdbaths, enclosing walls, and five towers. To shape finials on the towers and a gazebo, he used colanders, pots and pans, and a bowling ball. Rodia built in stages: He made the towers with interlocking rings, letting lower levels dry before climbing them like ladders to build higher and higher. He used no power tools or nails; he worked from no drawn plans.
Saving one man's powerful vision from destruction requires a small army. Among the towers’ nemeses were vandals who chipped away at the structure; unqualified restorers hired by the city in the mid-1970s; erosion that undermined the towers'stability; and, of course, earthquakes. On a recent sunny day a city curator, three workmen, a conservator, and a structural engineer walk among the structures. A man on his hands and knees uses a hand tool to smooth a groove in the pavement caused when the soil settled unevenly underneath. He'll inject concrete below the flooring to level the ground. The conservator, Zuleyma Aguirre, discusses with engineer Mel Green methods for reinforcing a wall, weakened since termites ate an interior wooden pole. The decision: Break into the wall from the outside, which has fewer decorations than the interior surface, and replace the wood with a steel post on a wide foot planted below the sidewalk.
Conservation has been going on since the state assumed ownership in 1978. The 1994 North Ridge earthquake caused fractures that required more urgent attention. Those repairs, such as reinforcing both towers and flying buttresses with interior steel rods and resecuring loose tiles, cost $2 million.
Care was taken to make the repairs without harming the artistic integrity of the structures. Every square foot was mapped. "When we take some of the decoration off to get to the metal bars inside, we return each piece of glass and pottery to its exact location," says Mark Greenfield, director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, which will oversee public tours of Rodia's work. "Where we have lost a piece of decoration, we can’t replace it because that would compromise the artistic integrity of the piece. Would you put a nose on the Sphinx?"
When the towers were works in progress, most people didn’t know what to make of the overgrown back-yard project. In 1948, inspectors from the city building and safety department asked Rodia why he was building them. He claimed they were an homage to California highways: The tallest was 101 feet in honor of Highway 101; another was 99 feet for Highway 99; a third was 66 feet for Highway 66, he lied. The inspectors took no further action. Rodia often responded to questions about his motivation with a simple, if accented, reply: "I want to do something big."
By the time Rodia deeded the property to neighbors and retired to northern California in 1955, he had succeeded. And so have many other grassroots artists. Whether labeled naive, folk, grassroots, or outsider, their work is today recognized as art.
City curator Virginia Ernst Kazor considers Rodia's work "a monument to what one human being can do if he puts his mind to it day after day." She anticipates as many as 25,000 visitors a year. Kazor, Greenfield, and others hope the traffic will pay off for the neighborhood. This community of 34,000, 55 percent of them living in poverty, may be disadvantaged, Greenfield says, "but it's not the hotbed of rebellion it is reputed to be."
Kazor looks across the street from the towers at simple, shotgun-style houses and sees potential: "I can see these houses as a café, a bookstore, or homes for artists in residence," she says. In her eye, conservation of the towers is only a start.
Kerri Westenberg lives in Santa Monica, Calif.
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