When Italian-born tilesetter Simon Rodia moved to Watts, the neighborhood was ethnically mixed. Three decades later, when he left, it was predominantly black and Latino, widely seen as the heart of LA's African-American community. In the intervening years, though, Rodia had constructed its single iconic structure, an extraordinary piece of folk art that's one of only a handful of National Historic Landmarks in Los Angeles.
Rodia started work on constructing what have become known as the Watts Towers shortly after purchasing a triangular lot in the area and moving on to the site in 1921. Using nothing but found objects (salvaged metal rods, cast-off pipe structures, broken bed frames), Rodia sent his towers inching gradually skywards over more than three decades, reinforcing them with steel and cement to prevent interference from both neighbors and the authorities.
Scaling the towers on a window-washer's belt and bucket, Rodia gradually decorated his towers with a patchwork of yet more found materials that inadvertently act as a reliquary of early and mid 20th-century consumer objects. The glass is mostly green and comes from bottles of 7-Up or Canada Dry; the tiles came from Malibu Pottery, where Rodia was employed in the late 1920s. Other objects clearly visible on the towers' coarse, gaudy 'skin' include jewelry, marble and an estimated 25,000 seashells.
The towers' construction, by a single pair of hands over a 33-year span, are part of
their legend. But so is their wan, spectral beauty. Like skeletal echoes of Antoni Gaudí's voluptuous Barcelona church steeples, the towers reach for the sky in an elaborate network of spindly, curved tendrils, connected with equally playful, decorous webs. There are 17 of them in all, the tallest stretching 99 feet into the Los Angeles sky.
The locals, though, were never especially supportive of his endeavors. Miscreant kids regularly smashed the towers' glass and tiling; during the war, a rumor even started that Rodia was sending classified information to the Japanese through the towers, which didn't endear him to his neighbors. In 1954, after years of abuse and vandalism, the 75-year-old Rodia abruptly gave the land to a neighbour and moved away, apparently not caring what happened to the towers he'd spent 34 years constructing.
After Rodia's departure, the towers changed hands several times, but were issued with a demolition in 1957 on the basis that they were structurally unsound. A public outcry ensued, and two years later the city agreed to run stress tests on the towers to test their stability. A stress load of 10,000 pounds was applied to the towers, but they didn't budge an inch. Unlike the crane applying the stress, which buckled under the strain. The future of the towers was finally assured.
It's hasn't all been smooth sailing. The towers gradually deteriorated over the years, and were damaged in the 1994 earthquake. However, after a decade-long program of renovations, they're now in great shape.