When asked why he built the Watts Towers, Simon Rodia replied, “I had it in my mind to do something big and did it.” Now that’s a quote to live by, and yet another reason to explore the awe-inspiring Watts Towers.
This week we’re taking a look at 3 interesting and lesser-known facts on and around the Watts Towers. Let’s jump into it.
A Quick History
There are several YouTube videos that delve into the history of the Watts Tower, and you can learn even more through a guided tour offered by the Watts Tower Arts Center.
For this post, I’m condensing the history quite a bit. The Watts Tower is a colossal folk art structure that was built over 33 years by Simon Rodia—an Italian-American who forever left his mark in Watts. Rodia, a tile setter by trade, started crafting the towers in 1921, juxtaposing bottles, sea shells, tiles, broken dishes and masonry along with steel, wire and cement. At completion, in 1954, Rodia built a mesmerizing maze of hard-touch materials that, at its highest point, reach nearly 100 feet.
After his solo endeavor, Rodia vacated his massive art piece to be closer family, giving the deed to his property—his house with the Watts Towers in his backyard—to a trusted friend who lived mere doors away from Rodia.
Today, the towers sit in the Simon Rodia State Historic Park, a triangle-shaped park that is home to The Watts Towers Arts Center, the neighboring Garden Studio that is also operated by the Watts Towers Arts Center, and a wide terrace with seating that sits directly below the towers. You can also find a sculpture of Rodia at the front of The Watts Towers Art Center.
So what don’t many people know about these towers?
Fact 1 – A Demolition Story
The Watts Towers were nearly destroyed.
In 1959, 5 years after Rodia vacated his folk art monument, the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety inspected the property, and warned of it being unsafe, believing it would be unable to withstand violent weather or a strong quake.
Art communities from across the nation protested the Building and Safety department’s decision along with the former Watts Tower property owners William Cartright, a film editor and Nicholas King, an actor. The owners and Building and Safety hashed out arguments left and right for weeks.
How was it settled? The compromise was to have the towers tugged by a powerful bulldozer. If it could withstand a limited tug, it was fit to remain intact, but would be subject to repairs.
And, well, they did just that. Conservations groups footed money to fund a test to tug the towers with a powerful vehicle that could deliver 10,000 pounds of periodic force. And after the fact, the building stood.
King and Cartright made the necessary repairs for the Watts Towers, and months later, opened the towers to the public.
Fun Fact: The Watts towers stood unscathed after the 1965 Watts Riots.
Fact 2 – Constant Upkeep
The Watts Towers can be difficult to maintain.
Since Rodia completed the towers in 1954, the Watts Towers have had maintenance care nearly every decade–and each repair shut down the towers for years at a time.
Its first renovation was in 1959, after Cartright and King won the right to keep the building erected. In 1978, the towers were closed for 7 years for a $1.2 million renovation, paid for by the state of California. In 1994, just after the Northridge earthquake, the towers sustained cracks and structural damage. After 6.5 years, and $950,000 funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the State of California reopened the Watts Towers to the public in late 2000.
In 2014, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or LACMA was awarded a $500,000 grant to streamline the maintenance for the Watts Towers. In the Spring of 2018, the towers were once again closed to the public for restoration.
LACMA posted signage where it anticipated spring 2020 as the construction completion date. The towers are no longer covered, but are not open for entry. However, the Watts Tower Art Center campus is still open to explore.
Fact 3 – Wide Historic Monument Status
The Watts Towers are historic monuments for the city, state, and federal governments.
Adopted in 1963, the towers are one of 144 Los Angeles Historic-Cultural monuments that are located in South Los Angeles, under No.15. California Historical Landmarks lists the Watts towers under No. 993. And the towers are also listed on the National Register of Historic places.
The Watts Towers are symbolic of the endurance that people in South Los Angeles have faced and continue to face. And I’m glad that our region holds such an amazing and unique piece of history. The Watts Towers were featured as a backdrop during the 52nd annual NAACP awards with Regina King in the foreground.
If you’re interested in learning more about the towers, you can still attend a guided tour by the Watts Towers Art Center. The tours are given outside of the gate and cost a nominal fee. Or you can visit the art center’s website
If you have something to share about the Watts Towers, leave it in the comments below.