The Wondrous Watts Towers

I’ve wanted to see the celebrated Watts Towers for a very long time.

Finally, after seeing the urban folk art mosaics of Isaiah Zagar in Philadelphia this year and, shortly after that, reading my friend Sally Nemeth’s blog post on her own visit to the Watts Towers – I was determined to go to Watts and explore this singular work of art for myself. So on Sunday, September 19, 2010, Victoria and I headed south down the 405 freeway, then east on the 105, bound for the Watts Towers.

I remember first becoming aware of the Watts Towers as a kid when I saw them on an episode of Dragnet. At least I had that image of seeing the towers on Dragnet lodged deep in my mind. In doing a little research for this post, I learned that this memory of mine is about 40-years old, as the Watts Towers did in fact appear on a Dragnet ’69 Season 3 episode called “Management Services.” So, it wasn’t just my imagination.

The Watts Towers are Simon Rodia’s imagination. Writ large. Very large.

It took less than an hour to get from my house in Woodland Hills to the tough, working class Watts neighborhood where Italian immigrant Simon Rodia lived and worked – and built his incredible, deeply-personal, monumental masterpiece with his own gnarled hands.

Rodia bought his lot on 107th Street in 1921, and for 34 years, he crafted his elaborate towers all by himself. Rodia didn’t use machines or scaffolding or bolts or welds. He used simple hand tools. Rodia didn’t even work out his complex designs on paper. His wondrous creations of concrete, steel, glass and ceramic odds and ends sprang day-by-day, year-by-year, out of his head.

Simon Rodia once said, “I had it in mind to do something big and I did it.”

Yeah, he sure did.

Somehow, this hard-working immigrant laborer and tile setter, with very little money, managed in his spare time to create an artwork that has become for the humble community of Watts what the grand work of the great Antoni Gaudí is to Barcelona, Spain: a source of artistic and civic pride.

The tallest of Simon Rodia’s towers rises less than an inch shy of 100 feet and contains “the longest slender reinforced concrete column in the world.”

The Watts Towers installation also includes a gazebo that has been used for church services and baptisms by a number of local congregations, three birdbaths, and a ship sculpture based on Marco Polo’s ship.

The outer wall running along 107th Street is fantastically adorned with tiles, seashells, broken pottery, glass bottles and handcrafted designs – which obviously helped to inspire Isaiah Zagar’s work in Philly.

The Watts Towers were designated a National Historic Landmark in 1990. Good call. The Towers have taken some hits from earthquakes over the years, but it’s impressive that, despite being located in such a tough neighborhood, they’ve suffered scant damage from vandals. No graffiti mars Simon’s amazing wall – and nobody has dared to tag the Watts Towers.

If you live in Los Angeles, go see the Watts Towers as soon as possible. If you visit Los Angeles, make sure you put Simon Rodia’s masterpiece on your agenda. There’s nothing like it in the world.

It’s hard to believe it took me 20 years since I moved to L.A. to visit them. But, now that I’ve seen the wonders that Simon Rodia wrought, I know I’ll be taking people to see the Watts Towers for many years to come.

Until you get there to see them for yourself, here’s a gallery of photos from our visit…


Filed under Art, Beauty

6 responses to “The Wondrous Watts Towers


    Gigli di Nola RodiaSabato Rodia
    The extraordinary Watts Towers were created over the course of 3 decades by a single-minded artist-artisan, Sabato (Simon, Sam) Rodia, an Italian immigrant who wanted to do “something big.”
    Now a National Historic Landmark and internationally-renowned icon, they are both a personal artistic expression and a collective symbol of Nuestro Pueblo—Our Town/Our People.

    The Watts Towers Common Ground Initiative: Art – Migrations – Development seeks to celebrate the common ground of the Towers, a locus of creativity, of sustained resolve in adversity and of positive public transformation. With an eye to renewing civic commitment to art in community contexts, this INITIATIVE will encompass a range of public events throughout the city, including an international conference at the University of California at Los Angeles and Watts, and a festival of art, film, theater, music, communal food tables and city tours.

    Both festival and conference carry forward the conversation begun at the international conference “Art and Migration: Sabato Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles”, jointly sponsored by the University of Genova and the UCLA International Institute (Italy, April 2009), which examined the monument’s multiple resonances within the milieux of local and global migrations, of contested social and urban spaces, and of the rapport between art and economic development. [related documents]

    2009 Genova Meeting
    Some conference participants, Genova, April 2009

    How are these divergent discourses and goals best bridged? How is “common ground” fostered around the Watts Towers? The continued well-being of the Towers and their adjacent Art Center, as well as the divergent communities which sustain and are sustained by them depend upon how well we answer these questions.

    Project Coordinator: Luisa Del Giudice

    With the assistance of: Thomas Harrison, Edward Landler, Rudy Barbee, Jo Farb Hernandez, Rosie Lee Hooks, Janine Watkins, Edward Tuttle

    UCLA Conference Committee: Thomas Harrison, Luisa Del Giudice, Jo Farb Hernandez, Paul Harris, Alessandro Dal Lago

    • The Watts Towers Common Ground Initiative:


      Conference: October 22-24, 2010

      Festival: September 25, 2010 – March 19, 2011

      Saturday, September 25

      (29th Annual Watts Towers Day of the Drum Festival:

      Charles Mingus Youth Art Center ( Watts Towers Arts Center campus)

      1727 East 107th St. , Los Angeles , 90002

      10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

      Migrating Towers: The Gigli of Nola and Beyond. Exhibition. Sept. 25, 2010 – Jan. 2, 2011 . Curated by Felice Ceparano, Dir., Museo Etnomusicale, I Gigli di Nola; Katia Ballacchino, Ph.D. Università di Roma, Sapienza.

      Nola – Watts – New York

      The Watts Towers strikingly recall the festival spires or “gigli” of Nola, a town situated approximately 35 miles from Rodia’s birthplace near Naples . Here, every June 22nd, for the feast of St. Paulinus, the city commemorates the bishop’s safe return from slavery. Eight 80-foot tall obelisks, or gigli, and a ceremonial “boat” are carried on the shoulders of hundreds of crew members from the community. Supporting a musical band, the massive structures are then danced through the narrow streets of the town’s historic center. Emigrants from Nola have remained loyal to this tradition and re-enact it, with towering gigli not only throughout Campania , Italy , but in Brooklyn, in Harlem , N.Y. , and Cliffside , N.J. This exhibition features images from the Ethnomusicological Museum of the Gigli of Nola as well as images of the Nolan diaspora from the Nola County Archive.

      Sunday, September 26

      (34th Annual Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival:

      Charles Mingus Youth Art Center ( Watts Towers Arts Center campus)

      10:00 a.m. – 6:00 p.m.

      Formal Inauguration of Watts Towers Common Ground Initiative, with Consul General of Italy in Los Angeles , Nicola Faganello, 12:00 p.m.

      Musicàntica: Music of Mediterranean Italy ( Charles Mingus Youth Arts Center ), 1:30 – 2:30 p.m.

  2. Rockin

    Fabulous! Next trip!

  3. SO glad you finally made the journey! And trust me, every time you bring friends there for a visit, you’ll see new things – it’s just endlessly fascinating. This weekend there’s a big fun event there – the Festival of the Drum. Not sure if it’s Sat or Sun, but definitely worth going, and not only for the battle of the local high school drumlines.

  4. Elda

    Beautifully amazing! I would like to know more about Radia, this extraordinary man who left us an extraordinary gift for everyone to enjoy (and thanks to you too, Paul).

  5. I truly value this blog post.A lot thanks once more. Keep creating.

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