June 28, 2009

Bizarre Historical Landmark of California: Watts Towers

The Watts Towers are one of LA's more unique attractions. Built by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia over a period of 30 years, the nine towers and associated structures are a great example of 20th century American folk art. Rodia immigrated to the US at the turn of the last century, working his way across the country and eventually settling in 1921 in Watts, California. The same year, he began building the Towers, working completely by hand, without scaffolding, and using whatever materials he could get his hands on. The project was finished in 1955, when he simply left one day, deeding the property to a neighbor. The City of Los Angeles declared the Towers unsafe and ordered them demolished. However, public outcry prevented the demolition, and the property is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is a National Historic Landmark and Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument number 15. The property is also now a state historic park, and the towers have been undergoing renovation following the Northridge quake.

Imprints of tools, plus Rodia's initials ("S R") and date 1923.

As an archaeologist, two things fascinate me about the Watts Towers. First is Rodia's use of found objects in the construction of his work, a.k.a. a creative use of other people's trash. As with Nit Wit Ridge, most of the decorative elements are created out of found objects such as soda bottles, broken glass, pottery, silverware, and sea shells. These objects, discarded by others, were deliberately collected for their color and texture and arranged with great care. The framework for the Towers was made from scrap rebar. Some of the decorative material came from Malibu Potteries, where he was employed for a time, but much of it was collected during Rodia's wanderings along city streets and the nearby Pacific Electric Railway right of way. Thus, the Towers are not only an excellent example of the reuse and repurposing of artifacts and building material, they are also practically a museum of early to mid- 20th century material culture.

Green bottle bases used as decorative elements

Another interesting aspect of the Watts Towers is that despite the prominent role of American material culture in the decorative element, the design of the Towers in fact echoes aspects of traditional Italian culture. Whether by design or unconscious imitation, the Towers strongly resemble the tall, elaborately decorated ceremonial towers carried in the processions of the Giglio festival in Nola, Italy, near where Rodia spent his childhood.

Tower from a Giglio festival in New York, 1962

While the neighborhood in which the Towers are situated is, to say the least, sketchy, they are certainly worth a visit. Pictures do not do the site justice- only in person can you get a sense of the scale of this unique work, and truly appreciate the 30 years of work put into it by one man. The site is very easy to get to by LA standards, just off the 110 freeway, so no excuses.

Here is the National Register registration form [pdf] (and the source of data for this post): Arloa Paquin Goldstone, "The Towers of Simon Rodia", National Park Service. June 18, 1990.

Also, check out this interesting 1957 film showing the man himself at work:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, wonder if he ever imagined how important his literaly unique masterpiece would be!