Los Angeles

Against the Elements: The Art and Science of Preserving the Watts Towers

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Deemed outsider art, folk art, and other similarly nondescript and fluid labels, the Watts Towers do not necessarily fit the bill for a standard definition or understanding of art. But no matter what they are called, the Towers remain a cultural jewel of Los Angeles. And within the cracks and structure of these Towers lies an unfolding story and scientific mystery of sorts.

In 1921, Sabato Simon Rodia started with his home -- he mosaicked the façade of his house, and some of the nearby walls. He used glass 7-Up bottles, sea glass, shells, broken plates, toys, tiles, rocks, and whatever else he could get his hands on.

And then he continued. By 1955 he had built seventeen structures, with three of those towers being most notable (the tallest at 99.5 feet high). Beginning with steel structural bases, Rodia enveloped these structural cage-like elements with concrete cement and imbued them with decorative knick-knacks and found treasures -- all while free-climbing up and down the towers unprotected, without scaffolding or a harness. And with this, the Watts Towers were built.

Mosaic detail. | Photo: Ellen C. Caldwell.

7-Up fountain. | Photo: Ellen C. Caldwell.

The fact that the Towers were made by a construction worker-by-day and self-taught-artist-and-architect-by-night makes them that much more intriguing and awe-inspiring. The thought of converting one's home into a work of art is equally thrilling. And the thought of all of this lasting the test of time is equally so.

But as every homeowner knows, including Rodia himself, keeping up repairs on a home is an ongoing battle. The same can be said for the Towers and his work of art. Even while building, Rodia learned that maintenance and repairs were continuous. So he built, repaired, and maintained his towers as a simultaneous process. Until, as stories go, one day in 1955 when he deeded the property to a neighbor, moved, and never returned to his home or towers.

Tower | Photo: Ellen C. Caldwell.

Shortly after this, the city of Los Angeles stepped in, worrying that the Towers were structurally unsound and a potential safety issue. However, Angelenos who had come to love the Towers protested and challenged the city to test the strength of the Towers, certain that they and their would prevail. Led by Norman J. "Bud" Goldstone, a former aerospace engineer with an affinity for the towers, the city performed a highly publicized load-bearing test in 1959 to see whether they could endure the mimicked forces of a 70-mph wind. They did. So they were left intact, where tours continued, the Watts Art Center grew, and a small conservation crew continued to count, track, and repair cracks.

Detail of cracks. | Photo: Ellen C. Caldwell.

However, a strange thing happened. The cracks were growing in number, almost exponentially. One year, a handful of cracks were documented, while the next there were twice as many -- but the cracks were generally only springing up in the same locations as previous cracks and previous repairs. The fact that the towers were cracking was not altogether surprising, but the fact that the towers were cracking in the same places as the previous repairs was. As current LACMA conservationist Dr. Frank Preusser points out, "most of those were the same cracks -- being repaired, re-repaired, and recounted." The solutions being used as fixes were in fact temporary and ineffective. Cracks were continuously filled, but resulted in re-cracking or even expanding cracks.

In 2011, the city was at a loss for what to do with the Towers and it was out of money for repairs, particularly repairs that were not even successfully doing what they were meant to do. The city's Department of Cultural Affairs reached out to LACMA to contract and enlist a top-notch team of conservationists. Led by senior conservation scientist Frank Preusser, they were charged with studying the current Watts Towers conservation guide, making corrections as needed, and mapping out an updated plan to keep the Towers safe, sound, and stable.

Monitoring devices. | Photo: Ellen C. Caldwell.

In the winter of 2012, UCLA engineers Robert Nigbor and Ertugrul Taciroglu were awarded an National Science Foundation grant that allows them to work with the LACMA team, bringing their civil engineering expertise and a slew of much more precise and expensive tools for recording and monitoring the Towers. For the most part, this technology and team has reinforced Preusser and his LACMA team's existing theories about the Towers, and its repairs, cracks, and movement -- but they have done so much more consistently, precisely, and thoroughly.

Tower in the sun. | Photo: Ellen C. Caldwell.

Just one of the really fascinating aspects of this story and this union is the way in which these often overlooked towers are acting as a case study -- not just for other public monuments and temples, but also for other civil engineering repairs and structures.

Recent data shows that as the sun rises and shines on the Towers, they heat up and actually move throughout the day, bending toward the sun like a plant looking for solar sustenance. The Towers are in fact moving structures, tilting an astonishing inch at the tip of the highest tower on a given day. Because of this movement and flexibility, traditional repairs will not work (as demonstrated in previous repairs that are now having to be redone). In 2012, the team began taking accelerometer measurements, measuring acceleration and movement caused by something as major as an earthquake or the comparable forces of Southern California's Santa Ana winds.

Dr. Presusser explaining the cracks in the cement. | Photo: Ellen C. Caldwell.

Dr. Preusser has worked on an extensive list of important projects in many interesting places (the Great Sphinx of Giza and the Tomb of Queen Nefertari at Thebes, to name a few). When asked about how working on the Towers differs from his other work and how the ongoing challenges and threats to the Towers, such as winds, weather, sun, earthquakes, etc., affect this case differently than other cases he's worked on, he explained that Rodia's use of cement, a relatively new material at the time of its application, lies at the heart of this study.

"Most of the monuments and sites I have worked on are much older and constructed with traditional materials and construction techniques," he says. "The Towers are in many ways unconventional structures and built at a time when we did not fully understand the properties of cement-based materials. The resultant deterioration poses significant challenges that require us to look for solutions outside the traditional art conservation field and learn from the solutions found for commercial structures, such as buildings, bridges, piers, and highways. A second major challenge is the absence of any standards in how to deal with issues such as losses and past restorations/changes. We have guidelines for historic architecture and for traditional works of art, but the Towers fall between these two and are not really covered by either one."

Thermal testing. | Photo: Ellen C. Caldwell.

In order to fix these moving towers, new science is being used and tested to figure out more pliable ways to seal the cracks and move with the Towers, rather than against them. Such repair work will likely impact other similar monuments and architecture as well as more mundane civil engineering structures. "This is a fascinating engineering problem," Nigbor says. "We generally work with relatively boring buildings, bridges, and other civil engineering structures. The time scale for potential damage is measured in years or decades. Here, we are applying our methods and skills to a much more immediate problem. So, results from Watts Towers will help us apply these techniques to the general class of old and new civil structures like buildings and bridges."

Tower in sun. | Photo: Ellen C. Caldwell.

Taciroglu recalls his first visit to the towers. "I knew what the towers looked like from photographs, but when I visited the site, I was blown away by the sheer size (considering that this was built by a single person by hand) and by the intricacy of structural frame. [Rodia] was 42 years old and divorced when he started building the towers in 1921. I am 42 now. I suppose most everyone gets an itch at middle age. Some run marathons; and I suppose some (very few) build towers."

Indeed, very few do build towers. And tragically, very few resident Angelenos visit them either.

I grew up listening to Patty Zeitlin's 1978 record album "Castle in my City," named after its featured track. This children's song boasts of the treasure that lies in the Watts Towers, in the heart of our very own city: "There's a castle in my city, there's a castle in my town, so strong and so pretty, they can't tear it down..."

However, most of the traffic at the Towers comes from international tourists, rather than Los Angeles residents. In fact, few residents have made it to the Towers unless they are with an elementary school tour.

What Preusser and his team hope for these towers is that the conservation efforts will help not only to preserve the towers for current and future generations, but also to increase visitors who enjoy them.

Imprints of Rodias hand tools. | Photo: Ellen C. Caldwell.

Experiencing the Towers, visitors are amidst something much bigger than themselves. That they exist and persevere is something intangibly moving. That they were built by one man and his hand tools alone is inspiring. That they were decorated from a discarded treasure trove of trash is stirring and motivational. They are truly a magical part of the city and should be a point of pride, not only worth protecting, but also worth sharing.

Although now the Towers are referred to with a rather obvious nomenclature of the city they reside in ("Watts Towers"), it is said that Rodia himself simply called them "Nuestro Pubelo," Spanish for "our town." In the heart and spirit of Rodia, it is our hope that more residents, visitors, and artists alike will seek out the Towers to truly see, feel, reclaim, and share them as such.

The Watts Towers - Nuestro Pueblo. | Photo: Ellen C. Caldwell.

Towers view. | Photo: Ellen C. Caldwell.

Tours of the Towers occur Thursday through Sunday. Visit Watts Towers Art Center for more information about tours and events.

For more information on LACMA's conservation efforts, please visit LACMA's Watts Towers page.

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About the Author

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based art historian, writer, and editor.
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