Today, the structures known as the Watts Towers are icons of the city of Los Angeles, known around the world. The surrounding area has incubated and arts and cultural vibe that draws pride from the spires, towers, and mosaics. Simon Rodia himself called the complete project “Nuestro Pueblo,” meaning “Our Town.”
Rodia was asked many times why he chose to build objects out of salvaged steel, chicken wire, and cement encrusted with shells, bottle fragments, and stones. The one-time telephone lineman and stone mason said, “I had it in my mind to do something big and did it” – so goes the quote or a version close to it. What we do know is that they were built between 1921 and 1954, when Rodia left L.A. for the Northern California town of Martinez, never to return. He sold the property to his neighbor and by 1959, it was owned by actor Nicholas King and a group of concerned citizens who were worried about the future of the property.
The value of the towers to the city of Los Angeles as art is relatively new. That wasn’t the prevailing view in the 1950s. A condemnation order was issued in early 1957 by the city and was adjudicated a little over two years later – a process richly documented in the Los Angeles City Archives.
A series of meetings of the Building and Safety Commissioners was convened. The official purpose of the discussion, according to their memo issued to interested parties, “to show why the structures should not be ordered, repaired, or demolished” The supporting documents and photographs referred to the towers by letters A through E.
The discussions of the Building and Safety Commissioners survive in meeting transcripts and exhibits housed at the City Archives. Exhibits such as sketches drawn by inspectors and photographs accompany the written testimony between July 6 and October 19, 1959. Letters of support range from national art councils, publications, and museums to local groups such as the Junior Art League of UCLA and individuals like famed architect Paul Revere Williams. They make the case for preservation of the towers as art and a “possible tourist attraction,” according to one supporter. Many of the letter writers knew Rodia personally and describe his work in very personal terms. One such letter also reminds us of the economics of the area at that time and the need for art:
Through the years, many of us old-timers watched Simon Rodia build them and enjoyed occasional evenings there admiring the play of lights on his marvelous mosaics. Since as a group in the lower income brackets, we have too few works of art in our midst, we would sorely miss this wonderful work of genius if it is taken away from us.
The poetry and passion of these materials are in direct opposition to the transcripts. They are full of the testimony of building inspectors and engineers who described their findings in the language of construction math and science. Jack Levine, the lawyer for the non-profit Committee for Simon Rodia’s Towers in Watts initially questioned whether the Building Code applied to the towers at all, as they were not habitable structures. The small house that Rodia had lived in had been damaged by fire after he left town and had been demolished before the hearings occurred.
An inspector who had visited Rodia in 1951 described what he saw: “He accompanied us over the entire triangular shaped property…I was more or less amazed what he had told us at the time how one man could do this work without assistance…He explained how he was keeping those things maintained [by] climbing up on those towers with a bucket of cement plaster [and] just patt[ing] it in place” When asked if Rodia used a ladder, the response was that “he went up like a monkey” up the side of the tower without a ladder or scaffolding. However amusing an image that may be, there are photographs of Rodia at work with ladders nearby.
The hearings continued for 11 days until July 23, 1959 and were continued until an independent set of engineering and structural tests were completed. The final day of the hearings on October 19 discussed the test results and concluded that the towers were sound from an engineering standpoint and could be safely strengthened and preserved. Attorney Jack Levine summed up the towers in his closing remarks to the commission:
This is something different than an ordinary structure, and that the City should have recognized that this is something different from an ordinary structure…they were designed to be looked at, to be seen… they are a treasure of the community…and that we can expect that with this decision that the towers will stand for generations to come not only for the owners to enjoy but also for the interested members of our community and all over this entire country.
Thankfully, the commission decided in favor of preservation. The alternative may have only left us this short film about the towers, made before Rodia left Los Angeles.