One Man's Hands: The Watts Towers

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I had it in my mind to do something big, and I did. -Simon Rodia

(image credit: BenFrantzDale)

The Watts Towers were built by one man, without help and without proper construction tools or blueprints. Continue reading for the story of how Simon Rodia single-handedly built the 17-structure project that still stands today in Los Angeles. He spent 34 years building his masterpiece, and then walked away from it.

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Simon Rodia (also called Sam Rodilla) was born Sabato Rodia in Italy in 1879, immigrated to America, and settled in California, where he and his wife had three children. He worked in construction, helping to build the University of California at Berkeley. After a period of alcoholism and a wandering hobo life that separated him from his family, he sobered up and bought some property in the Watts area of Los Angeles. In 1921, Rodia began building what became known as the Watts Towers, a set of 17 structures made of mostly scrap metal and found objects. The tallest tower is 99.5 feet tall! Rodia worked without scaffolds, welding equipment, or plans. He used a window washer's belt to climb the towers, and pipe-fitting tools to connect the metal.

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(image credit: 131774)

The towers are made of structural steel, covered with mortar, and embedded with glass, seashells, and ceramic pieces. Some of the glass can be identified as drink bottles and various household products. The ceramics are mostly from the Malibu Pottery, where Rodia worked for years.

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(image credit: Minnaert)

He worked on the towers until 1955, a total of 34 years! Watts residents didn't know what to make of the project. There was a rumor that the towers were radio antennae for transmitting messages to Japanese forces. Another rumor was that there was treasure hidden in the complex. Rodia, fed up with life in Watts where he didn't get along well with the neighbors and children vandalized his art, gave the property away and moved back to northern California, saying he wanted to die near his family. He was 75 years old by then. Rodia settled in Martinez, California, where he died in 1965, only a month before the Watts Riots.

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(image credit: Dystopos)

The property changed hands a couple of times and was bought by actor Nicholas King and film editor William Cartwright, who hoped to preserve the towers. After the sale, they were shocked to find a demolition order stood against the property by the City of Los Angeles. King and Cartwright mobilized LA's art community to band together and save the towers. They formed the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts and took responsibility for maintaining the towers. They arranged a test to prove the towers were structurally sound to convince the city they were not hazardous. The test, conducted in 1959, proved that they could survive ten thousand pounds of stress. The demolition order was lifted, and public tours of the property began in 1960. When the Watts Riots destroyed most of the surrounding area in 1965, Rodia's towers survived unscathed. It became a symbol of survival and renewal to the neighborhood.

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(image credit: 131774)

In 1975, the Committee gave the property to the city of Los Angeles. Simon Rodia's towers, which he called "Nuestro Pueblo" (our town) are now a National Historic Landmark./p>

The Towers is a 1957 documentary about Rodia and his project.

I Build the Tower is a feature-length 2006 documentary that details the story of Simon Rodia, the towers, and how they survived the Watts riots and the threat of demolition.

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Attached to the Watts Towers is the Watts Towers Art Center, founded in 1965. From its beginning, the center offered free art classes to Watts residents. The center has diverse educational programs and art exhibits. It is also home to the annual Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival and the Day of the Drum Festival, both the last weekend in September. The towers themselves are open for public tours.

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August 14, 2008 - 2:41am
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